Thursday, January 14, 2016

Making Habits, Breaking Habits

by Jeremy Dean

Why You Will Like This Book:
  • Full of lots of helpful ideas & thoughts to get you to effectively change your life.
  • But unlike many "self help" style books, this is backed up with many, many scientific studies.

And Why You Might Not:
  • Sometimes he presents the studies in a way that is too generalized for my taste. (Academic studies are often misread in this way, I find. People misunderstand how specific these sorts of results are supposed to be.)

Thoughts: This is going to have to be less organized than I'd like, especially for a books with so much interesting information in it. But it was my last 2015 read and I have to finish everything up quickly so I can make the Top Ten posts before we're too far into 2016. So here are a whole whack of notes I took while reading this book:

From the first two parts of the book:
--Despite how interesting and informative they can be, I'm a little skeptical about the many discussions on studies done. For instance on pages 30-1, it talks about a study measuring self-esteem by seeing how much nervous body language participants exhibit. The fascinating result is that people are horrible at measuring their own self-esteem. But I question the method used. How much does nervous body language actually relate to low self-esteem? I know it frequently has no relation for me personally. As I'm a fairly fidgety person, a lot of stereotypical nervous physical symptoms for me simply means I'm thinking hard, or I'm bored, or many other things. And if they're inaccurate in their means of measurement, the whole thing falls apart. This applies to many of the studies listed here. When taken out of their academic setting, it can be rather dangerous to base too much on studies, in my opinion.
--On the other hand, I want to emphasize how many of these studies really fascinate me. Especially the ones about the conscious part of the brain. Makes me want to delve deeply into the philosophical/theological/scientific meaning of consciousness.
--I had no idea subliminal messaging actually worked (pg. 44). I thought it was a weird sci-fi thing. Gonna have to look into that now.
--And speaking of misapplied studies, pg. 61-2 mentions a study showing that people makes friends with people who share the same preferred activities rather than people who share the same attitudes--the reverse of what we expect. But of course it's easier to make friends if you see them more often! People are lazy/insecure/whatever enough that even if you really like a person and you share the same attitudes, you're never going to become close if you don't have an easy way to see them. But if you, like I did growing up, see a bunch of different people just as often, I think you will gravitate toward the shared attitude people, not the preferred activities people. At the very least, I think there's plenty of room for error in a study like that.

From the chapter on making habits:
--Out of several techniques tested in this one study, the best for encouraging people to make plans of action and taking responsibility, when the expectation of success was high, was to imagine a positive vision of the problem solved, then to contrast it with the negative aspects of reality, carrying out a reality check. When the expectation of solving the problem was low, however, this was not helpful. In the end, this is probably a goo result too, since it forces people to decide whether their goal was really achievable, and if not, to let it go. (pg. 136-7)
--Best way to do the contrast technique above: WOOP. "Wish", "Outcome", "Obstacle", and "Plan". "Wish"=the habit you wish to achieve, "Outcome"=best result of your habit, "Obstacle"=the reality of the time and determination it's actually going to cost, "Plan"=implementation intention(s). (pg. 138)
--Speaking of implementation intentions, there are some tips to making good ones: be specific and exact, not vague, behaviour/situation plans; make if-then links, "If I'm about to get in the car for a short trip, then I should walk" as opposed to "I intend to get fitter or more in shape"; don't use times (like 8 pm), use events (like after lunch). (pg. 138-141)

From the chapter on breaking habits:
--The importance of mindfulness is discussed. It's something that's popped up a lot in my life recently, and I'm beginning to learn it may be very important. Something for me to ruminate on in the next while...
--Instead of simply trying hard to break a habit, focusing on implementing a new habit instead of the old one is a better way to go. (pg. 159)
--Self control is a limited resource, a fact I already knew. But people who talk about that don't always talk about how keeping one's core values in mind (family, creativity, aesthetics, etc.) can double one's self control ability. (pg. 164) It annoys me that people probably use the first fact against ideas of striving for holiness, but actually keeping one's desire for holiness in mind can fight against that fact considerably.
--People who successfully implement an exercise habit were shown to increase their self control, but in areas not related to exercising. (pg. 165) Everything influences everything else; it's fascinating and a little terrifying.
--Changing small things in your environment can jog your consciousness. It doesn't mean that you'll automatically break the habit, but at least it won't be unconscious--you'll have to actively choose. (pg. 168)

From the chapter on healthy habits:
--People who successfully implemented weight loss plans were consistent, eating the same thing on the weekend as during the week and in the same location (at home, usually), and made small incremental changes. (pg. 175) I'm getting more and more convinced of the usefulness of making small, small changes one at a time.
--I've heard this in other places, but here it is again: to be more effective at eating less, store food in smaller containers; store food you want to eat less of in less visible, accessible places; eat off smaller plates, use smaller utensils, smaller packaging, etc. etc. (pg. 176)
--Eating with one's non-dominant hand can jolt one out of eating habits, causing one to have more control and therefore eat less. (pg. 176)
--Self-control is a generalized ability! Meaning gaining it in one area affects all the other areas. Reminds me of Catholic spirituality. (pg. 177)
--A better strategy than simply deciding, "If I'm hungry between meals, I must avoid chocolate" is to substitute a positive replacement, like "If I'm hungry between meals, then I'll eat an apple". (pg. 178)

From the chapter on creativity:
--I've heard this before, but it was reiterated here: restraints are good for creativity (pg. 198). There is an especially modern idea that freedom is paramount. But stricter constraints actually force the creativity out of us to a larger degree. Especially when these constraints force us to work around habitual modes of thought. The most effective way of doing this, apparently, is imagining a different world--"what if" questions like "What if we abolished money?"
--"Counter-factual" mindsets, either additive or subtractive, can . An additive, focused on adding something to a situation, helps the mind think more expansively, and is good for idea generation. A subtractive mindset helps people think more analytically, fitting the components of an idea together. (pg. 199 - 200)
--Preparation helps a lot in increasing creativity. Long preparation, thinking about how to use things beforehand and constructing and analyzing the problem is key.  (pg. 200-1)
--According to one study, inventors go through four phases: 1) A strong drive to create, 2) They conceptualized opposite or opposing ideas, 3) They figured out that the ideas could be integrated, 4) They fully constructed their idea. (pg. 203) I'm pleased with that "opposite idea" thing. Sounds paradoxical, which sounds awesome.
--Apparently zooming out to maximum abstraction is good for creativity (pg. 205). Made me feel validated, cause I love abstractions.
--There was this study discussed on pg. 206-7 that tried to show abstract thought is better for creativity than concrete thought by making people think about sex vs. love. I think this might not be a well-formed study, since sex has so many other mind-altering effects than just its concreteness. Maybe they were less creative because sex is so distracting, rather than so concrete?
--Imaging things in the future or a far distance away (like another country), increase abstract thought and thus creativity. However, it reduces analytical problem solving ability. (pg. 206-7).
--Simply imagining yourself as a child boosts creativity (pg. 210). This is because it's boosting playfulness and openness. Rather sad adults are so lacking in this.

(Man, I really need to own this book as a reference. For scientific studies like this, it can matter what the details are, and there are so many details.)

Grade: 3 1/2 stars

If You Like This, You Might Also Like: Well, I don't really read a whole lot of books like this, but here are a couple recent examples:
--Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks: because it has interesting facts about the human brain. It's not useful the way MH,BH is, but even more fascinating.
--Driven to Distraction by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey: this book about ADD and ADHD, on the other hand, is more useful than fascinating. Still has info about brain studies, though.

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