Habitual Productivity

Habits are what drive our lives. Some studies estimate that between 40 and 90% of our life is driven by habit. Pyrrho, a Greek Skeptic Philosopher, thought that literally everything that a person did was because of convention and habit. Because of this, if you want to change something in your life, you have to do much more than decide to change. You have to decide to change your systems. No matter your goals, if the systems aren’t in place, then you won’t reach the goals.

Low level learning comes in two varieties: simple Stimulus-Response (Pavlovian) and Instrumental Conditioning. The big difference between the two is that Stimulus-Response Conditioning occurs without any goal in mind, while Instrumental conditioning only happens if the outcome is valued. Habits can fall into both categories.

Stimulus Response Conditioning occurs when there is a consistent pairing of a neutral stimulus (called the Conditioned Stimulus because over the course of associating the stimulus with the response, this stimulus becomes conditioned) with a biologically loaded stimulus (called the Unconditioned Stimulus because it does not become more conditioned). A typical example of this is sitting down at the dinner table causes you to start to salivate because there is a consistent association between sitting down at the table and eating. Another example is the association between getting into bed and falling asleep. This is why advice given to people who struggle with insomnia is to only sleep in bed, not to read or work in bed, which is supposed to strengthen the example between being in bed and sleeping.

Instrumental (or Operant) conditioning occurs when there is a goal of value which we are pursuing. This does not mean that it is necessarily conscious as many of the value calculations that we do aren’t conscious either. For example, when you decide that you want a biscuit, there is no conscious process of figuring out if you want a biscuit, there just comes to mind a desire for that biscuit. A more relevant and worrying example is when you pull out your phone and get a quick dopamine hit, rewarding your the activity of opening your phone. Because pulling out your phone is consistently associated with that dopamine hit, you pull it out more often, becoming an unconscious habit. (Seriously, try going a day without pulling out your phone unless you need to, it is almost scary how many times you find yourself with your phone in your hand without realizing that you were going for it.)

The patterns and habits that are built into your brain are what make your base level, authentic self. If you want to change your own life, you need to change your habits. These subconscious patterns, these stimulus response patterns, are what form them. To control them, you only need to be conscious of these patterns, specifically of the stimuli (or cues) that trigger the responses.

If there is a bad habit you want to break, the best place to start is with figuring out what cues the habit, and replace the response to that cue with something else, and replacement task very, very easy. For example, if you find yourself scrolling on your phone every time you get into bed, put a book by your bed and leave your charger on the far side of the room. Then tell yourself that every time you get into bed you will read at least 2 pages of that book.

It is the same with creating a good habit. If you want to start journalling every morning, attach that response to another cue which happens every morning, like making yourself a coffee. Tell yourself, while the kettle is boiling/machine warming up, write at least 4 lines in your journal.

These habits can be built into complex routines that add up to big results. If you want to keep your house tidier, put routines in place where the response is to put something away, and very soon it will be much easier to keep a tidy living space.

I’ve seen this idea described in a couple of different ways: as attaching a new habit onto an old one, as stimulus-response pattern building, or as building your life into a sequence of if/then rules, that are simple and easy to follow. Whichever way helps you understand how to build productive processes into your life the best is the way that you should use.

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