Psychology

The purpose of reading is to write

I’ve long struggled with the fact that I forget most of what I read. I read mostly for fun, but it’s disappointing when what I read doesn’t affect my life.

Writing about books seems to help me remember what I read. The additional thinking required to write down and compress my thoughts solidifies the lessons from the book. A good friend once said that “no one can ever teach you anything; they can only help you realize what you actually believe already.” Writing about what I read further distills the ideas and helps me “know what I believe”.

There’s also an imbalance created by only taking in ideas and not putting them back out. Writing helps me let go of ideas, making room for new things.

So now when I find a new book to read, I ask myself “what will you write about this?” The books that seem like good writing inspiration are also usually the best reads as well.

(inspired by a tweet from Steve Sinofsky…sure, tweets count as writing too!)

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.

Humanity, correctly seen in the context of the last five hundred years, is an extruder of technological material. We take in matter that has a low degree of organization; we put it through mental filters, and we extrude jewelry, gospels, space shuttles. This is what we do. – Terence McKenna

Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read

Great overview of the “forgetting curve“, the way that we immediately forget almost all the information we take in:

For many, the experience of consuming culture is like filling up a bathtub, soaking in it, and then watching the water run down the drain. It might leave a film in the tub, but the rest is gone.

That describes many of my reading experiences quite well; sometimes I feel like the characters in this Portlandia skit. The key to avoiding this is recalling and re-encountering the information again:

If you want to remember the things you watch and read, space them out…Memories get reinforced the more you recall them, Horvath says. If you read a book all in one stretch—on an airplane, say—you’re just holding the story in your working memory that whole time. “You’re never actually reaccessing it,” he says.

The most well-known technique for recalling information systematically is spaced repetition:

Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect.

This website has always served as my outboard brain, but I don’t re-encounter my own thoughts on a regular basis. I’ve tried a few times to set up a system to send me random past posts; worth getting that going.

Notes from Learning to Die in the Anthropocene

A few years back I was talking with a friend about how much more frequent and easier air travel had gotten even since I was a kid. I mentioned that our kids would probably travel constantly and never settle down, and he responded “or maybe we’ll run out of resources and they won’t be able to travel at all.”

That was the first time I really considered that our way of life might not continue growing forever, and may end or transform completely. Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is a short, poetic exploration of how we might come to terms with our mortality as a civilization, and if we must die out, learn how to die well. It’s a dark book, but offers an unexpected olive branch in the form of the humanities as a way to avoid the worst of what might come.

The Big Idea

Humanity’s survival through the collapse of carbon-fueled capitalism and into the new world of the Anthropocene will hinge on our ability to let our old way of life die while protecting, sustaining, and reworking our collective stores of cultural technology. (23)

Scranton highlights that the foundations of our civilization are the stories we tell ourselves. If we tell stories about endless technological progress and individual fulfillment, we are likely to fall into chaos once our resources run out. But if we tell stories about what’s best–and most basic–about human culture, we build knowledge and a support system for harder times.

Rather than technology, this emphasizes the humanities as the most important area to develop in ourselves and our children. Scranton argues that reading, writing, singing and drawing new stories about “the good life” is the best way to protect against the dangers of climate change, resource depletion, and societal collapse.

The first step, though, is to personally and as a society realize our mortality and shift to a mindset of collective responsibility.

5 favorite quotes

  • Politics, whether for bees or for humans, is the energetic distribution of bodies in systems. This is where the ideas of the vote, the town hall meeting, and the public debate get their power: humans come together to resonate on one frequency or another. (55-56)
  • Accepting this emptiness, letting go of my self, was only the first step in coming to understand my responsibility to and participation in a larger collective self, a kind of human existence transcending any particular place or time, going back to our first moments in Africa 200,000 years ago, and living on in the dim, fraught future of the Anthropocene.(93-94)
  • “All the wisdom and reasoning in this world boils down finally to this point: to teach us not to be afraid to die.” – Michel de Montaigne (91)
  • The only inherent trait of the human ape that differentiates us from other animals is our knack for collective symbolic manipulation. (94)
  • The study of the humanities is nothing less than the patient nurturing of the roots and heirloom varietals of human symbolic life…The fate of the humanities, as we confront the end of modern civilization, is the fate of humanity itself. (99; 110)

Next steps

I’ve long wanted to write simple children’s books about the future, and illustrating possible good lifestyles in a challenging environment seems like a good way to do that. Will make that a priority this year.

Update – Just found out I posted this on the day Ursula Le Guin died. Sad news. A quote of hers that applies quite nicely here:

“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”

Investment and love

Dan Ariely on why we love our kids so much (and more than others):

Kids really come with no instructions. Very tough to deal with, difficult, complex, but incredibly involving and time consuming and I think the love that comes out of it is an example of the effect of a tremendous investment.

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

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

A list of human universals

Things that everybody does, in every culture worldwide: Human Universals

For example:

  • Dance
  • Jokes
  • Language
  • Laws
  • Planning for future
  • “Snakes, wariness around”
  • Tickling
  • “Weather control (attempts to)”

via Alan Kay, who says “Suppose you want to make a lot of money. Well, just take the top 20 human universals and build a technological amplifier for them.”