Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Hiding The Marshmallow

We're discussing this today: Can Brain Science Help Us Break Bad Habits?

Summary: Studies suggest that relying on will power is hopeless. Instead, we must find strategies that don’t require us to be strong.

I'm going to use a few excerpts to get us started, but the entire article is very thought-provoking. Also, one of these excerpts references the marshmallow experiment, and if you're not familiar with it, go here for a summary.

Wood’s research originally focused not on habits but on persistence. For “one-off, occasional behaviors,” like getting a flu shot, conscious decisions were all that was required. For behaviors involving repetition, though, habits were crucial. 

In Mischel’s marshmallow experiment, only a quarter of the subjects were able to resist eating the marshmallow for fifteen minutes. This implies that a large majority of us lack the self-control required to succeed in life. But a less discussed part of the study suggests a way of circumventing our frailty. The researchers compared the results of two situations: in one, children could see the marshmallow in front of them; in the other, they knew that it was there but couldn’t see it. On average, the children lasted only six minutes when presented with visible temptation but could manage ten minutes if the treat was hidden. For Wood, this outcome shows that self-control is “not so much an inherent disposition but instead a reflection of the situation we are in.” 

Even people who score high on self-control questionnaires may owe their apparent virtue to situational factors rather than to sheer fortitude. A study of such people in Germany found that they reported resisting temptation surprisingly rarely. “They were living their lives in a way that hid the marshmallow almost all the time,” Wood writes. This observation leads to the crux of her book’s thesis: the path to breaking bad habits lies not in resolve but in restructuring our environment in ways that sustain good behaviors. 

The central force for eliminating bad habits, according to Wood, is “friction”: if we can make bad habits more inconvenient, then inertia can carry us in the direction of virtue, without ever requiring us to be strong. 

Where Wood emphasizes situational control as a way of making good habits easy, Duhigg writes about a woman who bites her nails and is advised to find something else to do with her hands that will produce a comparable physical stimulation, such as rapping her knuckles on a desk. The idea is to keep the powerful structure of cue and reward intact but to tweak the content of the routine. 

I never though about it in those terms, but I've been accidentally doing that with my writing. In order to write at a consistent level every day, I have a very strict routine:
get up: 7:35.
leave the house:8:35.
arrive at the Gardens: 8:50.
meditate for 15 minutes.
enter the Gardens: 9:10.
have a muffin and read a few websites (the same ones every day.
Start writing: 9:35.

Also, the only thing I do at the Gardens is sit in the cafeteria and write. I don't walk around the gardens, which are lovely. After I eat breakfast, I don't look at my phone. When I sit down, the only thing I've done in that place for months is write, and it triggers me to start. All the distractions are marshmallows, and I've systematically put them all away. And it's easy, when I set it up that way.

Other ways? Very hard. Trying to fit writing in is very difficult, and it's also very difficult to write in three or four different places each week, like I used to. I could still write, but it took much longer to get started, and I tended to get distracted. That's why this research resonates with me pretty strongly.

On a side note, I started doing the rapping knuckles thing when I have the urge to bite my nails. I'll let you know if it works.

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