This essay continues a series about self-improvement that began by discussing motivation. The next essay in the series describes how to be a chooser even when reactive.
My essays about appropriate masculinity and self-improvement are written primarily for my sons. So I acknowledge that what they discuss can be beneficial to both men and women, but may use male pronouns inclusively.
Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.
- Jim Ryun
My sons, none of us are as functional as we want to be.
When I say this, I mean something very specific: we are like imperfectly programmed robots.
As much as people like to talk about having free will, when deciding how to act we very seldom actually make choices. Most of the time we do what we are going to do anyway, then rationalize our decisions to help us accept what happened.
This means that if we want to change the choices we make, we need to change our programming, not our choice-making or willpower.
We want to improve ourseves. We want to be more functional. This self-improvement does not come from the easy imaginings of making decisions, but from the difficult work of changing habits.
As part of my training for hypnosis, years ago, I learned that human brains are rationalization machines, not logic machines. That’s hard to accept, especially in yourself. Your brain tells you otherwise. It insists it is completely rational.
- Scott Adams
Humans aren’t rational actors; they’re rationalizing actors.
- James Weidmann
What does changing our programming look like? We are "programmed" by four factors: our routines, body chemistry, perspectives, and points of connection. These word together to create our habits.
Being aware of these four very different factors is crucial. Often what makes an attempted change difficult is that we try to change the wrong kind of factor.
Here is a personal example. My body regulates its cortisol levels poorly. For decades I was unaware of this. I tried changing my daily routines in all sorts of ways, in an effort to help me relax better. Eventually, a naturopathic physician had me try rhodiola root, which can help the body regulate corisol levels. The change was prompt and dramatic. Not only did I relax better, but without realizing it I also dropped my small nervous habits such as picking at my lip. The improvement that had been impossibly difficult as a change of routines was easy to achieve as a change of body chemistry.
As a second personal example, I enjoy exercising outdoors and appreciate what regular aerobic exercise does for my health and mood. In high school I did cross-country running, so I have decent running technique, but I do not enjoy running enough to do it regularly. I love to bicycle as a practical way to get around town, but do not enjoy it enough to do it simply for exercise. It was not until my late thirties that I tried skateboarding, and finally found an outdoor aerobic activity that was enough fun for me to enthusiastically make time in my schedule for the exercise. A lifestyle change that did not work through adding willpower or changing routines was easy to do with a new perspective.
You can probably think of examples from your own life in which changes were much easier after your correctly identified the right factor to change.
(I should acknowledge that some changes are intrinsically really difficult. Identifying the right factor is not always enough to make a change easier. Ask anyone who has quit drinking soda and also quit smoking about the difference in difficulty!)
My sons, please realize that in many cultures and families one kind of factor is seen as shameful or taboo for discussion. This should not be! Perhaps because issues of body chemistry are hush-hushed the people who are depressed are unhelpfully told to "get going" and "stop being lazy". Perhaps because discussions of contrasting perspectives are hush-hushed people cannot explore issues of prejudice or inclusiveness. If you need to, be a bit rebellious and find other people who are willing to deal with all four kinds of factors.
It also helps to categorize changes in our programming by how much outside assistance we need.
Let's look at examples of each category.
The first category was changes we can start by ourselves, and manage our progress ourselves. Here are three examples.
As one example, Adam enjoys bicycling on sunny days, but hates bicycling in the rain. So each year, in mid-Spring when the rains have ended, he commits to bicycling to work at least three times each week until the rainy season resumes in mid-Fall. This is a routine he misses during the rainy season. He fondly remembers how at a bicycle's speed he can see more of my town's houses and yards, and appreciates the season's changes along my commute. He also feels the benefits from the extra exercise. So he has no trouble maintaining the new routine.
At a family reunion, Brenda's parents tell her about how they think their energy levels and mood have been improved by a recent change in their diets. She would normally be skeptical about such claims, but these are her parents. They share an awful lot of body chemistry. She decides to make the same changes to her diet for two weeks, to see if they also work for her. She has no trouble doing so.
Carl enjoys volunteer work. After he moves to a new city he spends some time researching ways that volunteering can help him get to know the community as well as helping people. He eventually decides that for the rest of the year he would make weekly visits to a retirement facility near his home. He appreciates what the “Greatest Generation” has done for his own, enjoys helping people feel less lonely, and wants to hear stories about how life in this city has changed over the past few decades. This would be a great point of connection to his new city that compliments meeting new work colleagues and neighbors.
The second category was changes we can start by ourselves, but need outside assistance to manage. Here are three examples.
Deborah wants to go running in the mornings. But from past experience of failing to adopt this routine she knows that she will not keep at it when she tries to run alone. So she find a friend with the same goal. Twice a week they will meet before breakfast and run together. On the mornings when Deborah wants to spoil herself and stay in bed, knowing her friend will be waiting for her will be the boost she needs to get herself going.
Ed wants to quit drinking soda. He finds a friend with the same goal. Each week they check in with each other, to hold the other accountable. Ed knows that his body chemistry is used to the regular hit of soda sweetness, and the change will require willpower. He also knows that remembering that someone will ask him about it will be enough to keep him from making excuses and cheating.
Freda knows it is important to ask questions as a student in a math class. But her routine is to be quiet instead. So she makes a deal with a classmate. Each Friday, whichever of them has asked more questions that week will buy the other lunch at the cafeteria after class. Freda needs to “win” at least half the time to break even! And even when her new friend wins, the questions asked by her friend help Freda too.
Yesterday Gary found out that one of his coworkers has some political views that he finds abhorrent. Something must be too simplistic regarding his perspective that people with political views opposite his own must be less caring or intelligent. Gary has known this coworker for years, and is confused how such a kind, intelligent, and thoughtful person could think that way. Gary surely does not want to change his own views. Nor does he want to be confrontational and spit facts at someone. Gary invites the coworker to have lunch together and talk politics, emphasizing that he is curious about what the coworker's views mean to the coworker rather than wanting the coworker to preach what they might mean to Gary.
Once again, we can (and often do) make an attempt at self-improvement more difficult by miscategorizing the change.
For changes of the second category, it is often easy to get help. It is a simple and straightforward task to find someone with whom to go running, or to ask a friend to keep you accountable for a diet goal. But neglecting to get help managing the change can doom an otherwise simple change.
The third category was changes for which we need assistance both to start and to manage. Here are three examples.
Before moving to the Pacific Northwest Heidi had never heard of Seasonal Affect Disorder. She is stunned at how the long, grey Winters wreck her mood and energy level. She had no idea what to do about this issue of body chemistry. So she asked my doctor. The doctor provided her with some helpful counsel about lifestyle choices and changes, and informed her about what pharmaceutical options are availible if needed. The doctor also referred Heidi to a naturopathic physician, who has a local reputation for knowing medical options that are less expensive and drastic than the pharmaceutical ones. Before saying goodbye, the doctor made Heidi schedule two follow-up visits because the doctor knows patients like Heidi might otherwise drift along depressed without the help they need.
Ivan used to hate group work in math classes. He always did a lot of work, and some lazy people in his group would get just as many points. But in his current math class group work is great. All the students help each other, and each time they work in groups every group member has at least one small insight to share. Ivan realizes he now has a new perspective. Group work itself is not bad. Yes, bad group work is bad. But good group work is also possible. However, Ivan is not yet sure how to carry this lesson with him to his next math class. If his next instructor is not as skilled at making group work happen well, what can he do as a student? Ivan might need to pay attention for the rest of this term to find an answer. Or maybe this instructor can just explain what is happening pedagogically that promotes good group work?
Jillian tried taking community college classes, but she does not seem to have time to do homework because she is a working single parent. She realizes that other people in her situation have found solutions and been successful. But she genuinely cannot imagine how they do it at all, let alone do it happily. Jillian knows she must need some new habits, but cannot think what to do. She mostly needs a new perspective. She needs hope and optimism instead of despair and failure. She tells her parents how she feels. They do not know how to help, but her father says if she finds a helpful role model to meet with then he’ll pay for them to have coffee together once or twice a week. It turns out the college does have resources to help working single parents, and the college counselors help Jillian find a successful student mentor. They do wind up having coffee together weekly. But mostly it is the mentor's frequent text messages that help keep Jillian on track and push her when she needs to do something or is headed in the wrong direction. It does not get easy, but it is working out. Jillian once felt like she was walking alone in a dark tunnel and could not even see the light at the far end. Now she feels like she is walking with a friend on an overgrown path, and the brambles are annoying but they will not stop them.
Again, we can (and often do) make an attempt at self-improvement more difficult by miscategorizing the change.
For changes of the third category, we might need to ask around about where or how to get started. Who do I talk to next if my primary care physician does not have any help for my depression? Which classmate would be willing to form a study group so doing homework becomes more productive and rewarding? Who else has overcome a personal challenge and can encourage me to "catch up" to their level of happiness and functionality?
Yet once we get the process started, the rest often happens in a simple and straightforward manner, largely because we are receiving the help we need in managing our progress. Continuing to use a new medication, study group, or mentoring is usually easy because the benefits are so clear and nice.
My sons, please realize one last thing. Just like how many cultures and families see one kind of factor as shameful or taboo for discussion, sometimes changes that need assistance both to start and to manage are taboo. Again, be a bit rebellious and find people to talk with. A person who avoids self-improvement because needing continued help is embarassing is someone who quits in fear: that quitter is the weak person, not the contrasting person who makes us of help and succeeds in self-improvement.