Mindfulness

Hijacking habits

My college (and then Google) friend Tristan Harris 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 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.

Nunc stans

“Nunc stans” translates to “the now that stays”, and it is sometimes described as an attribute of God, where the experience is separate from time itself.

The now that passes produces time, the now that remains produces eternity.- Boethius

Gratitude increases patience and self-control – as the author asserts, a good way to keep those New Year’s resolutions!

How video games point to enlightenment

In 2008, Metafilter member aeschenkarnos wrote a review of the outside world as if it were a video game:

The physics system is note-perfect (often at the expense of playability), the graphics are beyond comparison, the rendering of objects is absolutely beautiful at any distance, and the player’s ability to interact with objects is really limited only by other players’ tolerance. The real fundamental problem with the game is that there is nothing to do.

It received a score of 7/10.

Since then, a few people have written about how treating your real life like a video game can improve your productivity and personal development. Jane McGonigal, one of my design heroes, developed a game to make people happier and healthier in real life. And many “games” have been created to teach meditation, calm the mind, and even “promote compassion, altruism and teamwork”.

There are clear parallels between the activities shown and taught in these “games” and the ones that multiple religions point to as leading to truth and enlightenment. Video games let you build a character, developing their “experience points” along the way; religions provide paths of growth toward holiness. Video games let you explore alternative realities; Buddhism and Christianity both explain that this world is not the “true” reality; the promised kingdom.

But piloting a character in a video game, and recognizing their false nature, is different than believing you yourself are a character in a game. Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument is the most well-known explanation of how we might actually be living inside a simulation, while Robin Sloan wrote a fascinating piece about how to best succeed–and not get turned off–if that were true:

If you might be living in a simulation then all else equal you should care less about others, live more for today, make your world look more likely to become rich, expect to and try more to participate in pivotal events, be more entertaining and praiseworthy, and keep the famous people around you happier and more interested in you.

However, I had almost the opposite reaction. Instead of making me strive for simulated immortality, taking such a perspective mostly changes how I view everyday things. When I imagine I’m a character in a game, a few things change:

  • I pay more attention to the present moment: the people I’m with, the sights and sounds and feelings. It really is a well-designed game (“the graphics are beyond comparison”), but you only appreciate that by paying attention. And why play a game if you’re not going to pay attention to it?
  • My phone, the internet, and TV are less tempting. Who logs into a video game just to have their character watch TV?
  • In general I’m less swayed by indulgences. Drinking alcohol and eating junk food aren’t going to help with that leveling up, and being tired is something I can fix by simply clicking on a few more hours of sleep.
  • It’s easier to do the chores and tasks I know I need to do. Somehow viewing myself as a character makes it easier for me to tell him to get to work.
  • I feel braver and more willing to take risks, and try new things. Games reward exploration.

Interestingly, all these are also benefits I’ve found from prayer and meditation. Games and religious practices share the desire to reduce the ego and the identification with the “self”. If you don’t believe that this is your true self–your intended form–you can handle setbacks and struggles better (after all, they’re not about you). And you can still invest in and grow your “self”, but the stress of that and fear of failure goes away when you believe the true consequences and rewards are separate from this reality.

The danger in this perspective is descending into nihilism, where you believe that this life has no purpose. Reminding myself of the personal benefits of growth helps avoid that, but also looking deeply at the beauty of nature and society all around shows me the value of simply being there to experience it.

So if you see me moving a bit awkwardly around the world, gazing intently at every little thing, and trying weird new practices every day, cut me some slack–I’m still learning how to play this game.

Notes from “Why Buddhism is True”

Robert Wright’s books have oscillated between evolutionary science (The Moral Animal) and religious history (The Evolution of God, Nonzero). His latest book, Why Buddhism is True, tries to unify the fields, told through a personal perspective.

For more than two millennia, Buddhism had been studying how the human mind is programmed to react to its environment, how exactly the “conditioning” works. Now, with Darwin’s theory, we understood what had done the programming.

One of Buddhism’s big ideas is that most of what we sense and feel is illusory. Wright argues that evolution created these illusions by shaping us to value survival and reproductive success more than “truth”:

Natural selection didn’t design your mind to see the world clearly; it designed your mind to have perceptions and beliefs that would help take care of your genes.

He gives the example of seeing–really seeing–a dangerous snake out of the corner of your eye, sprinting away, and then turning back to realize it was only a stick. In the moment, your brain saw a snake, because it was more beneficial to your genes to believe it was real.

Even if you think you’re being rational, that too can be an illusion:

From natural selection’s point of view, it’s good for you to tell a coherent story about yourself, to depict yourself as a rational, self-aware actor. So whenever your actual motivations aren’t accessible to the part of your brain that communicates with the world, it would make sense for that part of your brain to generate stories about your motivation.

His conclusion is that our collective psychology is “a byproduct of the particular evolution of our species”, and that the way to save the world is for people to recognize their illusions, especially the illusion of separateness from each other.

I think there will have to be, in the long run, a revolution in human consciousness. I’m not sure what to call the revolution—maybe the Metacognitive Revolution, since it will involve stepping back and becoming more aware of how our minds work. But I think it’s going to have to be something so dramatic that future historians will have an actual label for the transformation.

In an age of information addiction and personalized newsfeeds it’s hard to imagine the world embracing mindfulness en masse. But perhaps it is exactly the artifice of those things that will drive us back to a more natural, more mindful, and more truthful lifestyle.

Experience as interpretation

Our own nature, in fact, is defined by the tiny fraction of possible interpretations [of the world] we can make, and the astronomical number we can’t.- Hans Moravec

Consciousness as story

Our consciousness may be primarily the continuous story we tell ourselves, from moment to moment, about what we did and why we did it. It is a thin, often inaccurate veneer rationalizing a mountain of unconscious processing…

On the one hand, our consciousness may be an evolutionary fluke, telling an unreliable story in a far-fetched interpretation of a pattern of tiny salty squirts. On the other, our consciousness is the only reason for thinking we exist (or for thinking we think). Without it there are no beliefs, no sensations, no experience of being, no universe. – Hans Moravec

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.

No more rock stars

This is a wonderful takedown of “rock stars” and stopping abuse–in the tech industry, but applicable to any field–by Leigh Honeywell. Some of my favorite points:

  • Have explicit rules for conduct and enforce them for everyone (of course, you say! But you still have to do it)
  • Insist on building a “deep bench” of talent at every level of your organization
  • Flatten the organizational hierarchy as much as possible
  • Avoid organizations becoming too central to people’s lives (when the job is all they have, people get crazy)

“Rockstar” in tech has become synonymous with narcissist. I avoid any contact with companies or teams who are looking for them.

A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, They fail to honor you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, “We did this ourselves.” – Laozi, Tao Te Ching

When privilege kills

What’s behind the increased rate of deaths from suicide, drug abuse, and heart disease for middle-aged white Americans? According to Nobel Prize winning economists Case and Deaton, it might be that they’re just not able to fulfill their own expectations:

Most of the increase in white deaths is concentrated among those who never finished college. These are the same people who have been pummeled by the economy in recent decades…

White American men without a college degree still earn 36 percent more than their black counterparts. But the death rate among less-educated black Americans has actually been decreasing…

Case and Deaton believe that white Americans may be suffering from a lack of hope. The pain in their bodies might reflect a “spiritual” pain caused by “cumulative distress, and the failure of life to turn out as expected.”

Maybe Calvin had it right after all: