A Cognitive Scientist’s Method for Changing Your Habits

“The single biggest mistake that most people make is that they don’t do a very simple thing, which is to make desirable behaviors easy and undesirable behaviors hard.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • Why time seems to speed up as we get older
  • Which specific qualities made Steve Jobs so successful
  • Why simple positive thinking won’t get the job done, and what to try instead

Art Markman, PhD, is a field-leading cognitive scientist, a University of Texas professor, and the author of Brain Briefs: Answers to the Most (and Least) Pressing Questions About Your Mind. Srinivas Rao recently hosted him on the Unmistakable Creative podcast to discuss why changing your environment is the crucial first step toward changing your habits, your brain, and your life.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. Click here to listen to the full version.

Srini: Do you have siblings? If so, what impact has that had on the life that you have led?

Art: I am the oldest of two—my younger brother was about five years younger than me. Unfortunately, he passed away about 12 years ago. For me, [that made] me think a lot about what I could do in my life, what I could accomplish, and to make sure that I left as little on the table as possible. Whenever you have a relative who dies fairly young, it gives you a real wake up call that you have a finite amount of time, and you’ve got to make the most of it.

Srini: Why do you think that something like that has to happen for so many people to actually have that wake up call? My friend Erik Wahl had this quote by Kierkegaard in his book: “All change is preceded by crisis.” What explains that from a cognitive science perspective?

Art: Part of it is just habit. So much of our life is driven by doing what we did last time—that’s where our cognitive comfort zone is. All else being equal, we tend to fall back on doing what we did last time, and letting each day be really similar to the one before. You can go an awfully long time that way, particularly if you’re in a busy stage of your career, or if you’re having a family, or anything where you don’t have the time to take that step back and say, “What would I regret not having done?”

One of the things that I talk about in the book is some research on regret by Tom Gilovich from Cornell. He asked a bunch of 19-year-olds what they regret, and it’s almost exclusively the dumb stuff that they’ve done. “I got drunk at a party.” “I said this mean thing to a friend.” “I cheated on a test.” Whatever it was, it was all the things that, as you get older, become really good stories that add spice to your life. [Then] Gilovich went to older adults, people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, and said, “What do you regret?” And it was all the stuff [they] didn’t do.

That combination of reading the research and having a brother who died led me to say, “Alright, if I was at the end of my life and looking back, what would I regret not having done?” For me, one of the big things was I had never learned to play the saxophone—I was in my mid 30s at that point. A couple weeks after that, I went out and bought a saxophone, found a teacher, and learned to play—and now I’m in a band. There you have it!

I think that crisis forces you out of your routine for a while, and asks you to contemplate what you might do differently that isn’t just following your day-to-day habits.

“The problem with positive thinking is that it doesn’t really force you to think about everything that’s going to go wrong as you engage in this change in behavior.”

Of course, no one’s going to have no regrets. The real question is, can you be as mindful as possible about what your regrets are, so that you can live with them? I think a lot of times you get towards the end and you think, “I wish I had taken advantage of this opportunity.”

So if you identify one of those potential regrets, you’ve then got to cash that out into a plan that will help you change that. You need to build a plan and be really realistic about your goals. As a guy in his mid 30s when I took up the sax with a family and a career, my goal was not to be Sonny Rollins in three years. What I literally said was, “I’m taking up the saxophone in the hope that in 10 years, I won’t suck.”

That’s the orientation you’ve got to take: making a good effort to do the things that you might later regret [not having done]. Just identifying the regrets doesn’t get you anywhere without being willing to plan and willing to fail. Another [potential] regret was that I’d never learn to swing dance. And now I’ve tried and failed. I’m okay with that.

Srini: I’m curious—from a cognitive science perspective, what do we know about behavior change?

Art: What makes behavior change so hard is that huge amounts of what we do are driven by habits. Those habits involve structures deep in the brain that don’t connect very well to that storytelling apparatus in the cortex that allows us to tell great stories about how we want to change behavior.

One of the first things that you need to do is to become mindful of all the habits. I tell everybody that you’ve got to keep a little habit diary where you keep track of all the habits you’ve got for a couple of weeks, just to know what you’re doing. Then after that, you need to build a plan that will enable the new behaviors to actually make it on your calendar.

[You also need] to be aware of all the obstacles that are going to get in your way. Bar none, my least favorite book written in the last 25 years is a book called The Secret, which tells you that if you want to reap all of life’s rewards, you just have to think positive thoughts, and those positive thoughts will resonate with the positive energy of the universe. The problem with positive thinking is that it doesn’t really force you to think about everything that’s going to go wrong as you engage in this change in behavior. If you’re not ready for them in advance, they derail your opportunity to make changes. You’ve got to plan for those.

And you’ve got to manage your environment. The single biggest mistake that most people make is that they don’t do a very simple thing, which is to make desirable behaviors easy and undesirable behaviors hard.

About 15 years ago, I lost 40 pounds. One of the reasons I needed to lose 40 pounds was because I had a love affair with Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. It a pint that comes in a single-serving carton. You pull it out of the freezer, you sit down on the sofa, and you start eating. Then you get halfway down, and you take one more spoonful past halfway, and it’s simply impolite to put less than half back in the freezer… Then you realize that you’ve just eaten more calories than some people in small countries get in a whole week.

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I made a remarkable discovery, which is that you can’t eat ice cream that’s not in your freezer. Why make it hard for yourself? You don’t get extra points for staring down your temptation, so just get it out of the way.

Srini: What do you think accounts for the variability that we see when it comes to self-improvement efforts? Some people [do change their behavior, while others are] stuck in an endless cycle.

Art: In my book Smart Change, I refer to the system [in your brain] that drives you towards your goals as the “Go System” because it gets you to go and do stuff. And there’s this secondary system I call the “Stop System,” which involves a lot of circuitry that runs through the orbitofrontal cortex, the area of the brain above your eyes. Its function is to stop you from doing things, and I think there are big individual differences in how powerful people’s brakes are. The people who are blessed with the ability to change behavior at will, those are the people whose Go System does not tend to overpower them, and whose Stop System is strong enough to tamp down most of their urges.

I think those people who get stuck in the endless cycle are the ones whose accelerator far outstrips the brakes. Those are the people who need to do the most structuring of their environment, working with people to help them all the way through the process of change. And they need to be the ones who are most tolerant of their failures, and to recognize that behavior change is sometimes two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes it’s two steps forward and six steps back, followed by a whole bunch of steps forward. [Because when] your Go System is overwhelming the Stop System, it’s very easy to say, “Well, look, I can’t do it,” and to give up.

Srini: Is it possible to rewire either one of those systems? Can we change our cognitive capabilities?

Art: The beauty of brains is that they change—they rewire themselves all the time. The more times that you perform a behavior, the more connections you create that make it easier to perform that behavior again in the future.

In general, I think it’s easier to rewire that Go System than the Stop System. In a car, you don’t want to ride the brakes, and it’s a bad attempt at behavior change to try to ride the brakes there too. When you identify the thing you’re trying to change, it’s really important to frame it in a positive way. Not “positive” as in “peppy,” but “positive” as in, “These are the actions I want to perform, rather than things I don’t want to perform.” You shouldn’t say, “I want to check my email less often.” You want to say, “Every morning when I come into work, I’m going to check my email for ten minutes, and then do an hour’s worth of work before I launch my email program again,” where now that’s a set of actions you can actually perform that leads to the desired outcome.

You really can rewire that Go System to engage in new behaviors. When you’re the sort of person who gets overwhelmed by the strength of the goals that you’re trying to change, you may have to do more work to get yourself enough repetitions of the new behavior to build the habits you want to build.

“The more times that you perform a behavior, the more connections you create that make it easier to perform that behavior again in the future.”

Srini: Based on the knowledge you have as a cognitive scientist, I’m curious about what accounts for the Steve Jobs-like, Elon Musk-like, Richard Branson-like success. Is that something that those types of people are just inherently capable of because of who they are?

Art: Success in any field requires a lot of work. It requires knowledge. It requires learning a bunch of things that you didn’t know you needed at the time you learned them, but turned out to be useful later. [Take] the story Steve Jobs tells about sitting in on a class and learning about fonts. It wasn’t like at the time he went, “Oh, wow, that’ll be really helpful for the computer I’m going to design in eight years.” It was just a piece of information that he took in.

I’ve often talked about this idea of the expert generalist, the people who just voraciously learn about all kinds of things without regard to how that’s going to be useful later. They then have this store of knowledge to help them be more innovative and to try new things. I think that’s certainly a piece of it.

I think that willingness to continue working on things in the face of failure is extraordinarily important. One of the reasons why a certain number of people who succeed as entrepreneurs dropped out of school is because school tends to teach us mistake minimization rather than overcoming error. From the first day of first grade, you get your spelling test back, and everything you got wrong is marked with a red X. You learn that the way you succeed in life is to make the fewest mistakes possible, which may help you in school, but doesn’t tend to help you afterward. I think that people who succeed in the way that Jobs, Musk, and Branson succeed is that they actually try stuff and then recover from the errors, rather than minimizing the number of opportunities to make errors.

My feeling is that Steve Jobs’s greatest strength was his deep understanding of what it was that people did with technology, and his willingness to adapt the technology to the things people do. When everyone talks about the iPod, they talk about the wheel and how cool that was. [But] the success of the iPod wasn’t the wheel—it was iTunes. It was the fact that even if you weren’t an expert in computers, you could plug the device into your computer, and it took care of everything else all by itself. Didn’t hurt that it looked cool, but the fact that you could integrate this seamlessly with the rest of your life characterized a lot of the great innovations that Steve Jobs made.

Srini: I want to look at a couple of different areas, and what we can use cognitive capabilities for to enhance these areas. The first one is focus, flow, productivity, and attention spans, [which] is very much for my personal need as a writer and a creator. What do we know about cognitive science that we can use to improve in those areas?

Art: One of the things we want to do is minimize the number of distractions that we create in our environments. One of the things people don’t appreciate is the degree to which the human mind learns about time. We have learned to pull our cell phones out of our pockets about every 12 minutes to see whether anything has come in. As a result, your brain creates a little interruption about every 12 minutes saying, “Isn’t it about time you checked your email or your Tweets?” I think we need to clear that environment out a little bit—put the phone away so we can’t get at it, shut the email program off, and create work environments where the brain will learn, “When I’m in this environment, I shouldn’t be interrupting you to do something else.”

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Another part, particularly for writers, is you have to just do it. The best writers are people who have a period of time every day when they sit down and just get their writing done. Even if they don’t [end up] writing something that they love that day, they got some work done and made progress. I think a lot of people in these kinds of fields do a lot of self-editing—they’re worried that the thing they’re about to write doesn’t look like a finished product. You have to remember that it rarely does, that the first drafts of almost everything are horrible, and that it’s by success of approximations that you finally find something that you want other people to see.

I’ve done a bit of work on things like brainstorming, and what we know about creativity is that the people who have the best ideas are the people who have the most ideas. Quantity ultimately predicts quality. That means that you’ve just got to get stuff out there and play with it, and not wait and wait until you have the brilliant idea.

Srini: You briefly mentioned time, and I want to talk a bit more about time perception. The question of, “Why does time seem to get faster as we get older?”—that is something that I have always wondered about. I’d love for you to explain that.

Art: It is scary what happens with time, isn’t it? I turned 50 last year, and suddenly I’m approaching my 51st birthday. It doesn’t seem like it was that long, certainly compared to the distance between being 7 and being 8.

What we know about time perception is two things. One, there is a simple proportional model that matters. If you’re 7 years old, the distance from 7 to 8 is 12% of your life. Whereas if you’re 50, that difference between 50 and 51 is a little under 2% of your life. That’s certainly a piece of it.

[But] the most important element in time perception has to do with the landmarks that you lay down in the process of living your life. The more landmarks there are, meaning the more unique, novel, interesting things you’ve done, the longer that period of time seems to be. As people get older, they get into a routine where every day they get up, go to work, come home, do whatever they do at home, go to sleep, and get up again. That routine has very little deviation in it. As a result, your brain doesn’t really think it has that much to learn, because you’re just doing what you did last time.

I think that one of the things that people need to do is create more opportunities to disrupt the brain’s predictions by doing things that the brain didn’t expect to do, which then tells your brain, “You’d better learn this.” The more of those things that you learn, when you then look back in time, you remember all of these things you did, and it makes the passage of time feel longer.

The paradox is that some of the studies suggest that in the moment, time goes fastest when you’re engaged in doing stuff, and slowest when you’re not. Sitting in a doctor’s waiting room feels interminable because all you’re paying attention to is the second hand journeying around the clock. Whereas when you have a really great conversation, for example, we’ve been talking about a half hour already, and it’s hard to believe that 30 minutes has gone by, because we’re not really paying attention to the passage of time. But when we look back on this experience later, there will be more landmarks. This hour will have seemed longer, whereas that hour you spend sitting in a waiting room will seem to have flown by in retrospect, because there aren’t really any landmarks for you to latch onto.

“The people who have the best ideas are the people who have the most ideas. Quantity ultimately predicts quality. That means that you’ve just got to get stuff out there and play with it, and not wait and wait until you have the brilliant idea.”

Srini: I want to ask you [about] the implications of the cognitive science research that you’ve done around social interactions and our relationships with other people. I remember reading the section in Brain Briefs on forgiveness, and I thought it was really interesting [to see] the impact that something like forgiveness has on the brain. Could you tell us a little bit about the implications of your research?

Art: The thing about any relationship is that you can’t get too deep into a relationship before you do something that offends somebody else. Even if it’s unintentional, that’s the way it is. We have to find ways of getting past that, so we don’t hold onto that stuff forever. Saying sorry or telling somebody else that they’ve been forgiven is your way of saying, “Alright, I’m going to let us move forward without letting that past have too much of an impact on the future.”

The really fascinating part that [I learned] from the research is that when you forgive somebody for something, that actually helps you to forget the gory details of what they did wrong. There are times when somebody does something that’s simply unforgivable, and you don’t want to forget, and that’s fine. [But] in a lot of cases, you need to get beyond that event, and forgiving somebody allows your brain to start losing those details, so that your future interactions with that person don’t have the same negative emotional resonance that they had in the past. It’s a very adaptive thing to do. We’re a social species—if we allowed every grudge to build up, we would quickly be a non-social species.

Srini: I have one last question for you: what do you think it is that makes somebody or something unmistakable?

Art: That’s a fascinating question. I think one of the biggest limiting factors in people’s lives is their attempt to edit their life story in the forward direction. They have this vision of who they’re supposed to be and how things are supposed to come out, and they make decisions about what they are and are not going to do on the basis of that vision.

One of the recognitions that had the most profound impact on my own life was the recognition that life is chaotic in the forward direction, and the narrative storyline that you have for your life only becomes clear when you look back on it. I think that those people who live their lives embracing the chaos of each moment and trying to make their way through it are the ones who give themselves the best possible chance of doing something really interesting.