Modularizing habits

Why we have habits and how we can change them and use them
ideas and frameworks for reasoning from first principles.. Neil Keleher.

This was a question a friend asked about habits on facebook:

Habits, easier to create new ones or easier to break old ones.

A more nuanced series of questions about habits could include the following:

  • What are habits?
  • How do we train habits?
  • How do we turn habits into options?
  • How do we use habits?
  • Why might we want to use habits?

Note there is no "how do we break bad habits?" question.
Instead it's worded as "how do we turn habits into options."

What are habits?

Habits are automatic processes. They are like functions in a computer program.

What is the single most obvious quality of a habit?

The biggest quality of habits is that we can do them without thinking.

That generally means that they tend to happen without us noticing them.

That being said, we can choose to notice them as they are happening.

We can observe the inputs that trigger habits.

And we can observe the output that a habit responds with.

Are habits bad?

We tend to think of habits as bad.

I've got to quit this drinking habit. I've got to quit smoking. I've got to stop eating bad things. I've got to stop swearing. I've got to stop dating jerks or other inappropriate people.

Other habits include the things that we use when we drive. For example, using the brakes, steering, changing gears, accelerating, the way we use the controls of the vehicle, without thinking, are habits.

Another term for habits, particularly in the physical realm is "muscle memory."

And so the idea here is that habits aren't necessarily bad. The trick is understanding habits and why we have them. If we do this, we can then use habits for our benefit.

Why do we have habits?

If you've ever tried driving a motorcycle without first having learned how to steer it or even more importantly, stop it, then when it comes time to steer or stop, you'll have to try and figure it out. You'll have to think about it and perhaps even experiment. In the meantime you've crashed. And if the bike wasn't yours, you then have to explain why you were riding, and why you crashed.

In the army, there is a particular habit related to gun handling.

Whenever entering a building, you check the magazine is off, then you work the action three times to make sure there are no rounds in the chamber.

This, ideally, is something you do without thinking.

Thinking, especially when you have to do a lot of it takes energy.

It also takes time.

Habits reduce the need to think

Habits reduce the need to think

Habits reduce the thinking load.

Habits are like employees that you train ahead of time. They do the work so that you don't have to.

Even answering simple math questions can become a habit.

What's 2+2? You don't think about it. You know. And if you are doing math, when you see 2+2 or some other simple equation, you know the answer. It's only when the math gets more complicated, or when you don't already know the answer (whats 8*7) that you slow down and have to think (well, 8*6 is 48, 8*8 is 64, oh yes its 57, no, 56)

Habits as the equivalent of functions in programming

In programming, writing functions is a simple way of reducing the amount of code.

Instead of writing the same code 20 times in a program, you write it once as a function. Then, all that repeated code (of five lines or more) is simply a call to that function.

And so with habits, rather than having to think about how to do something repeatedly, you learn how to do it, then that learning turns into a habit.

The habit encapsulates the necessary actions, as well as having an input and an output.

Creating optional responses for "bad" habits

Habits produce particular outputs in response to particular inputs

Habits are triggered by something, an input.

They respond with a particular output.

And so whenever particular inputs are received, particular habits are activated to create a particular output.

With simple programming functions, they take an input and give an output. More complex functions can take several inputs and output different outputs in response.

With bad habits, if we notice the input and the output, for example:

The input of stress results in the output of smoking or eating, or swearing,

We can train ourselves to output different responses.

These responses then become options.

The option of turning off the output of a habit

Another type of option is the ability to turn the output of a habit off at will.

This means noticing the input that triggers the habit, and then choosing to override the usual output of the habit.

Like programming, this can take some work.

How do we do this type of work?

Reprogramming habits requires observation

Rewriting code often means going over the code to understand what is happening.

Sometimes even simple changes can cause things to go wrong and so you have to look at the details to determine why it is going wrong.

With habits the same approach can be used.

Noticing the trigger of a habit, we may have to go deeper than just noticing the output. We have to notice the resistance, emotional, mental, that go with it.

Depending on the habit, one way around this is to stop thinking and do something. If the trigger is external, is there a way to avoid the trigger, or away to turn the trigger off once it has been triggered?

For myself, walking past a shop I always wanted to go in and buy chips or a candy bar. If I walked past the shop a few paces or more, I'd then give myself the option of going back if I still had the same desire. I could then walk back if I wanted to. More often than not, the desire turned off.

With something like swearing, the trick was to notice when I was swearing. Eventually I learned to notice the swear before I actually said it. I could then choose to use a substitute word, or not say anything at all.

Note I still swear today. The main difference is that I can turn it off when I need to. Previously, I didn't even know when I was swearing.

The process of learning to notice when I was swearing so that I could eventually control it took some time, perhaps a couple of weeks or more. But, it may have actually been shorter.

How do we train habits?

How do we train habits? Through repetition.

Learning to write Chinese characters, we develop habits. Likewise learning to write the letters of the alphabet.

How do we learn? How do we train?

Through repetition.

But, there's a smart way to do it, there's a smarter way to practice through repetition.

Training habits intelligently

A simple (and intelligent) way to train habits is to break down large actions into smaller ones. We can then repeat the smaller actions, then glue them together to form the larger action.

The benefit to this approach (which may not always be possible) is that we can re-use the smaller "building block" or "component" habits.

Another benefit is that the process of learning this way is quick and efficient and can even be enjoyable.

Modularizing habits

As an example of the building-block benefit of modular habits, I train yoga students to feel and control particular muscles.

If they learn to feel and control the muscles that act on the shoulder blades, and the shoulder blades (and collar bones) themselves, then in any given pose, I can tell them what to do with their shoulders and they can respond. Or they can notice their shoulders themselves and choose how to use them.

Along with that they could choose to learn to feel and control the muscles that act on the spine and ribcage. They can then feel and control their ribcage and spine in such a way that those structures anchor the muscles that act on the shoulder blades.

Note that these habits are not yoga specific. Instead they are actions that can be used in any activity.

Sitting at a computer, they can notice the way they position their spine and arms, and use them with awareness.

They can choose to sit nice and tall, with a lifted chest and upright head, and shoulders active to support the arms (and the muscles of the arm).

Or they can take breaks from slumping and simply sit up tall for a few moments (or stand tall) as a break from the slumping.

And if they wanted to they could use this awareness while walking, while using tools, while doing some physical activity.

Making learning more enjoyable

As an example of the "enjoying the process benefit" I learned to write Chinese characters not by practicing the entire character, but by repeating a few strokes at a time. I didn't have to think to know the next stroke, I'd simply repeat the set of strokes a few times. Then I'd do the same with the next set of strokes. Because I didn't have to think about what stroke was next, I could focus on the act of doing. I could then practice the whole character as the sum of these smaller sets, all from mid-term memory. And this was without tracing or otherwise copying.

Dealing with frustration through habits

One of the best uses of habits is dealing with frustration.

As a recent example, I took a job at an Italian restaurant. I had to learn how to make pizza's. For about a month I was always doing something wrong. I was either too slow, the pizza's where too small, or the dough was too thin in places so that I'd break the pizza at some point while it was in the oven. or I put too much cheese on or not enough. There were a lot of mistakes to be made and my boss didn't make it easy. then there were all the things I had to learn outside of making pizza. All the different pasta dishes. The cleaning. There was a lot.

And I got frustrated. But I eliminated the frustration and the tension by learning. By developing habits.

For example, cooking a truffle pasta, I always forgot to add salt. I started to remember near the end, then I remembered it while I was cooking. I'd turned it into a habit.

Clearly defining the actions to turn into habits

With writing functions for a program, it helps to understand what the function is supposed to do. With habits, the process can be the same.

If you recognize a series of steps, which you haven't quite learned, then the process of recognizing the steps, you can observe that these are the steps to turn into habits.

It can help if there are only three or four steps. If there are more, then break down 7 or either steps into groups of three or four. Turn the small groups into habits. You can then sum them so that your habit is then 7 or 8 steps.

Understanding overload (It isn't easy!)

In that same Italian restaurant, the boss spent three or four hours, (Writing this I can't believe it) but he spent three or four hours explaining to a new hire what he had to do. He didn't have the potential hire do any of this. He just expected him to remember.

The guy chose not to come back. He said the job was too difficult.

The boss had basically overloaded the guy with information.

I've been guilty of the same thing. And perhaps most of us have. When we've learned something we tend to think it is easy and can't see why someone else can't do it.

After all, it's easy.

Memorizing something and creating habits are more or less the same thing. Habits generally have an action associated with them, but they are both learned things.

I taught a 2 hour workshop condensing all the essentials from a 200 hour teacher training I'd attended. The general comment was that there was too much information. One person summed it up. I'd given them too much to remember.

Understanding the limitations of working memory

Our working memory or short term memory is limited.

If we understand this, we can come up with ways to work within those limits.

And this is a reason for why we have habits, to extend the range of our working memory, or rather, to offload tasks from working memory so that we can use working memory for other things.

To remember information (or actions) we have to practice them. In the process we upload information or actions or responses into mid term memory, and with further practice they become long term memories.

The trick is working within the limits of short term memory to make learning habits (or learning information) quick, efficient and painless.

And so if learning a lot, the trick is to break down what we are learning into smaller pieces..

Breaking a complex process down into smaller simpler processes

The boss of the Italian restaurant where I worked could have become at the very least a mediocre teacher if in the process of making a pizza he had a trainee practice opening the dough.

Or if he opened the dough and simply had the trainee spread the sauce, or put the cheese on.

Then once they'd learned one step he could have them practice another step. They could then get good at doing one thing and then they get good at doing another.

They would develop habits one at a time.

This isn't to stay that learning should always be carried out this way.

Sometimes it can be fun, interesting, to challenge oneself.

But, breaking things down can certainly make things easier, and it can make learning a lot less frustrating.

Instead of worrying about many problems, by breaking things down you can focus on working on one problem. It's not so daunting. I can even become fun. And you can give yourself a pat on the back when you deal with the problem.

Dealing with judgement

Note another point about developing habits, or learning in general is how we judge ourselves, how we mentally and emotionally react.

Sometimes pressure is exerted externally, i.e. someone else judges us.

Sometimes we exert it on ourselves.

In either case, we can choose how we respond.

On one particularly bad day at the restaurant, I ended up breaking two or three pizzas in a row. I got angry and vented my anger, wondering afterwards if I would still have a job, and also wondering if I still wanted that job.

At other times the boss would pressure me:

I started to ignore him and the external pressure that he exerted and did things in my own way as best I could.

Eventually I acquired enough experience that I was able to serve an entire party of nine by myself and within a short period of time. I was still nowhere near the bosses skill level, but I was good enough.

Note that prior to that I had another bad day where I broke pizzas. But rather than panicking, rather than getting frustrated, I stayed calm. Big deal, customer can wait. I noticed what caused the problem, fixed that, and then produced a pizza while staying in a calm state of mind.

And this, actually, can be another type of habit. If we get mentally flustered when things go wrong, that can be viewed as a habit. We can choose to respond differently. In the words of Mark Manson, we can choose not to give a fuck. For myself that meant realizing that the customer can wait.

That aside, why do we have habits?

Why do we have habits?

Why have habits? They allow us to respond to the unknown or the unexpected.

Because habits are pretrained, pre learned, like learning to make particular pizzas or pastas, they can be used in response to external changes.

We can then spend our thinking power, our processing power on the bigger problem at hand. Given an order, which pizza or pasta to do first?

If the goal is to get all dishes out at the same time, or reasonably close to the same time, what can we do to prep for one dish while I do another?

All of this requires experience.

Experience is where we attempt to use our habits in response to what is happening.

Note this isn't the simple "I'm stressed, so I'll smoke a cigarette" type of response. It's more nuanced.

It's like driving and using the brakes, the accelerator, steering, all in different combinations depending on the conditions on the road, and depending on the road itself.

Using modularized habits in response to external circumstances

With working in a kitchen the idea is to produce different dishes in response to different tables of customers. And this is where learning the steps to making each dish as separate habits can be useful. If we know how to prep a dish, we can do that prep, then do something else, then we can finish the dish when we need to so that all dishes are ready together.

This is a continuation of the learning process. And with a good teacher, the teacher could tell you what dish to do when.

Turning modular habits into Experience

And so experience is where we use each modularized habit in different ways in response to some external stimulus.

And this is roughly the equivalent of a computer program that is built up of different functions.

The experience is the activation of particular habits in different circumstances or contexts.

And so instead of having to make each dish in exactly the same way, the steps can be broken down so that they can be accomplished whenever there is time.

Recapping, the benefits of habits, particularly modularized habits

And so the overall benefit of habits is that they reduce the need to think. When we train habits, we do the thinking ahead of time.

To make training new habits easier, and more efficient, a key idea is to break big sets of actions into smaller habit modules.

Basically, the smaller you make habits (but not too small) the easier they can be to implement.

And in turn the easier it can be to re-arrange them to suit the circumstances.

If habits are modularized at the right level, say for example learning to feel and control muscles, they can be used outside the initial activity.

Published: 2021 09 16

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