On Habits and Randomness
Fragments from imaginary dialogues
“Habit creation (habit-making) and elimination (habit-breaking) is one of the most important meta-skills. An important part of my work involves coming up with ways to optimize this process.”
“What do you consider the essential pieces of information in this endeavor?”
“The structure of habit, and James Clear’s four rules of behavior change, from his wonderful book Atomic Habits.
The structure of habit:
The four rules of habit-making:
Make it easy.
Make it obvious.
Make it attractive.
Make it satisfying.
The four rules of habit-breaking:
Make it difficult.
Make it invisible.
Make it unattractive.
Make it unsatisfying.
“What are you working on at the moment?”
“On the reward aspect of habit creation, prompted by some very interesting pieces of information I came across recently:
Whenever you’ve completed a good habit, it’s vital that you allow yourself to feel good about it. The reward at the end of the behavior is what will make you want to do it again in the future.
To understand why that is, we need to take a look inside the brain. Every behavior involves multiple brain regions and neurochemicals, but the neurotransmitter dopamine plays an especially important part.
Many people think dopamine is released when the brain gets a reward, but that’s actually not quite accurate. Dopamine is not released during a reward, but in anticipation of a reward.
Dopamine is not about pleasure, it’s about the anticipation of pleasure. (Robert Sapolsky)
This is a really big idea, with extraordinary practical application.
You’re familiar with the two types of behavioral conditioning.”
“Classical and Operant Conditioning?”
In classical conditioning, reinforcement is based on repeated exposure.
Stimulus A produces a certain physiological response (eg emotional).
Stimulus B appears right after or at the same time as A.
Through repetition, B becomes associated with A, which produces a transfer of the physiological response from A to B.
In operant conditioning, reinforcement is based on repeated exposure to reward and punishment.
The most powerful reward is an intermittent reward, a reward where success is not guaranteed.
When you reward a behavior only some of the time, you add the word “maybe” into the equation. And, in the words of neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, “Maybe is addictive like nothing else out there”. (Patrik Edblad)
Both types of conditioning have application for habit creation.
Quoting Patrik Edblad again:
The best way to learn a new behavior is through continuous reinforcement, in which the behavior is reinforced every time it occurs.
The best way to strengthen an already established behavior is through intermittent reinforcement, in which the behavior is reinforced only some of the time.
In the first case, one of the best ways to do it is through celebration.
Reinforcement can take many forms, but the simplest and most effective I’ve found is behavior expert B. J. Fogg’s “celebration” technique. As the name suggests, all you have to do is celebrate each time you’ve completed your habit.
– Do a fist pump.
– Tell yourself, “That’s like me!”
– Put on a big smile.
By deliberately self-generating positive emotions, your brain will pay attention. It will come to associate your routine with feeling good. And soon, it will start releasing dopamine each time it anticipates your habit.
This is an instance of classical conditioning.
In the second case, I’ve been experimenting with randomness.
I told you a while ago about my system for randomly retrieving bookmarks from a folder [<link; medium read].
I set up a bookmarks folder named ‘Rewards‘.
Whenever I discover something that could work well as reward (eg something I tend to procrastinate with), I save it in the folder.
Whenever I want to reward myself for a behavior, I randomly extract something from the folder.”
“But there’s a difference between randomly getting a reward and getting a random reward.”
“I’m experimenting with combining the two.
I get a random reward every time. However among the rewards there are some that are very powerful.”
“You could say that.
Relative to those, the rest feel like filler.
Getting the super-reward feels like winning the jackpot.
The chance of getting it is very small, but it has a powerful effect just by being there.”