In the Groove

Having managed to survive what just might have been the worst month I’ve ever had, I have a couple of things to report about habits and knowing what you want. (To fill in the blanks first, I was over-prescribed an antiarrhythmic medication that has a number of debilitating side-effects and a half-life of 58 days—which means that although I stopped taking it five and a half weeks ago, I still have a few more weeks to go before half of it is out of my system.)

Here’s what I’ve observed during the past couple of months.

The Value of a Compelling Habit

Last year, I wrote about the two sets of four things that I aim to do every day—things I want to do. They can’t be strung together into a routine, so for quite a while I attempted to get them done by putting them on my to-do list. But, as I wrote:

In the moment, at any given time, the unconscious part of the brain, which is focused on immediate gratification, can almost always find something more interesting or enjoyable for me to do.

I solved the problem by rewarding myself with a small star sticker on the calendar in my bathroom each time I completed the four things. My goal was to earn both stars every day. I see this calendar whenever I leave the bathroom, since it hangs above the light switch. Observing the day-by-day accumulation of stars was very satisfying.  And I found that my self-talk, which had been encouraging me to delay or blow off one or more of the activities, turned into a cheerleader encouraging me to do them so I could get the star sticker.

This system has been in place for a while and had been quite successful until this past September, when I stopped being physically able to do two of the things (walking and stretching) twice a day. For a while I just lowered my sights and aimed for one star sticker a day. But more often than not, I couldn’t even aim that high.

But I have been very gradually feeling better and stronger the longer I’m off the medication. And I noticed that the calendar—with or without star stickers—has become a cue for me to resume those activities, which I have now been able to do for 10 consecutive days.

It doesn’t matter whether I look at each of the four things as a separate habit or at the group of them as a single habit. They are united by the star stickers on the calendar as well as in my mind. And not only does doing them make me feel better, resuming doing them is an indicator—in multiple ways—that I am better.

Although I hadn’t been doing the four things regularly for two and a half months, as soon as I was able to do so I got right back on track and my self-talk got right back in line. That’s because this set of habits is very compelling for me. I really, really want to do them. And I did them long enough in the past to create a well-defined track or groove that was easy for me to find and get back into.

The takeaway is that creating a groove is the most important part of developing a habit. If there’s something you want to do every day, first create a groove for doing it once or twice a week. If there’s something you want to do multiple times a day, first create a groove for doing it once a day.

If you try to be perfect out of the gate and fail (which is the most likely outcome), you’ll never gain any traction. You’ll have to continually keep starting over. But if you have a groove, even if it isn’t all you want it to be, it will be so much easier for you to find your place when you lose it. And you will lose it. That’s the nature of things.

The Value of Identifying What’s Most Important to You

There’s a little bit of irony in the fact that I identified vitality as the thing that’s most important to me two months before I was diagnosed last year with multiple heart conditions, including one that results in fatigue and decreased energy. On top of that, one of the most prominent side effects of the antiarrhythmic drug I took recently is insomnia. This is not a recipe for vitality.

But the fact that I can’t have the level of vitality I used to have and that I would much prefer to have doesn’t mean it isn’t still important to me. I haven’t decided to replace it with something else because my circumstances have changed. I’m clear that no matter what, vitality is still what I’m aiming for. That means I have to determine the best actions to take so I can achieve the highest level of vitality possible at any given time.

That makes it hard to feel defeated or powerless. My personal agency may be limited, but I can identify the agency I do have, the actions I can take, the difference I can make. In fact, aiming for as much vitality as I can get makes decision-making a breeze. Instead of basing decisions on what I should do or what I would prefer to do, I simply ask myself if doing or not doing something is likely to increase or decrease my vitality.

The takeaway here is that you may not be in a position to achieve as much of what’s important to you as you would like to achieve. That doesn’t mean you should write it off. (It doesn’t actually mean anything at all.) Don’t sell out. Don’t give up. Don’t let it go. Go after as much of it as you can get at this particular point in time!

Mind the Gap

You experience the gap numerous times each day. Everyone does. The gap, in this case, is the discrepancy between what you expect will happen and what actually happens. Because your brain finds this gap to be very unsettling, it responds by rushing to close it (i.e., explain it) as quickly as possible. Ostensibly, the purpose of an explanation is to help you understand what’s happening—or give you the sense that you understand—so you can determine a course of action to take.

This is an automatic process that works reasonably well in a variety of situations, especially if they’re straightforward and/or familiar. Coming up with explanations is so automatic and so fast that you probably don’t stop very often to question the validity or accuracy of the expectations that gave rise to the gap that needs explaining.

But if your expectations are based on unfounded assumptions or an incorrect analysis of the situation—or if they are missing critical information—then your explanation is bound to be flawed. And it turns out that most such explanations are flawed.

In truth, when we set out to explain our actions, they are all post hoc explanations using post hoc observations with no access to unconscious processing. Not only that, our left brain fudges things a bit to fit into a makes-sense story. Explanations are all based on what makes it into our consciousness, but actions and the feelings happen before we are consciously aware of them—and most of them are the results of nonconscious processes, which will never make it into the explanations. The reality is that listening to people’s explanations of their actions is interesting—and in the case of politicians, entertaining—but often a waste of time. —Michael Gazzaniga, Professor of Psychology, UC Santa Barbara

You can’t avoid having expectations. If your brain wasn’t predictive, you wouldn’t be able to function in the world you find yourself in. But those predictions are based, to a great extent, on the mental model the unconscious part of your brain maintains of what’s normal for you. Naturally, you feel pretty confident about them. But the degree of confidence you have in your explanations is not a reliable guide to their validity or accuracy.

When the gap is generated by a flawed explanation based on unfounded expectations, the action you take to correct or respond to it won’t get you the result you want. Instead you will be faced with yet another gap to explain and contend with. Continuing down this winding road can take you very far afield from your original destination.

As a result, the conscious part of your brain (the part you think of as “I”) may become more and more dissatisfied, frustrated, and even confused. You may give up or at least feel like giving up. The unconscious part of your brain, on the other hand, is likely to be quite satisfied with this state of affairs.

We have a big brain capable of greatness with hardwiring for survival. –David DiSalvo

The unconscious part of your brain is, as Cormac McCarthy put it, “a machine for operating an animal.” This particular machine’s prime directive is survival, and it thinks the best way for you to survive is to maintain your status quo. It has a variety of tricks up its sleeve to deceive you into thinking you’re moving forward when, in fact, you’re expending a lot of mental energy running in place on the hamster wheel.

The Myth of Self-Sabotage

Self-sabotage is a great example of an explanation created to account for the gap between the expectation that our behavior ought to be based on our conscious intentions and the experience of doing something other than what we consciously intend to do. If you accept the self-sabotage explanation, the logical action to take is to try to determine how and why you’re sabotaging yourself. This is a diversionary expedition that leads to a dead end. It contributes nothing in the way of helping you change your behavior.

The expectation that our behavior ought to be based on our conscious intentions is based on several unwarranted assumptions. The reality is that since we operate on autopilot most of the time, most of our behavior is generated by unconscious impulses, not by conscious intentions. And the unconscious part of our brain wants to maintain the status quo. You’re far more likely to keep doing what you’ve been doing than you are to do something different.

You may not like it, but the fact that you don’t always do what you consciously intend to do should not surprise or confound you. The logical action to take (instead of trying to figure out how and why you’re sabotaging yourself) is to retrain your brain to make the desirable behavior part of the status quo.

When you follow the path of least resistance by unquestioningly going along with your brain’s interpretation of events and behaviors, you end up digging yourself deeper into your rut. If you want to expand your mental model, change your direction, and give yourself more opportunities to succeed, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to develop the habit of questioning your expectations.

Objective Means to Subjective Ends

An objective is…objective. It’s generally specific and quantifiable. A dictionary might define an objective as something you’re working toward, such as a goal or the completion of a project. You may or may not succeed in reaching the goal or completing the project, but you’ll know whether or not you achieved your objective.

One objective may be a single step in the process of completing a larger objective. Maybe you undertake to read a particular book in order to successfully complete a class that is part of your goal of obtaining some type of certification or qualification. You’ll know whether or not you finished reading the book, successfully completed the class, and obtained the certification.

But why are you working toward that certification? What aspects of your status quo are you aiming to change? The objective change is obvious: you will have the certification or qualification you didn’t have before. However, the subjective change—your desired outcome—is likely to be much less clearly defined, if even considered.

This isn’t to say you don’t have an explanation for why you want to do something—or at least why you think you want to do it. Explaining ourselves to ourselves comes naturally to humans. You may also be clear about the potential benefits of succeeding with your objective. But having good reasons and being aware of the benefits are not the same as identifying your desired outcome.

Why (to) Ask Why

You could be going on a job interview because you hope to get hired or because you’re thinking about quitting your current job and are testing the waters or because a relative hooked you up and you feel obligated…or…or…or. Those are some reasons you might have for keeping the appointment for that interview.

Assuming you hope to get hired, why? Maybe it’s simply to earn enough to pay your bills. Or maybe you want to move up into a more challenging or more prestigious position. You might be seeking a congenial group of co-workers to expand your circle of friends. Or you might want a calmer work environment with less stress than you now have. Or you’d like a more stimulating environment. It could be a combination of factors.

If you’re clear about what you hope will happen as a result of getting the job, you’ll be better able to evaluate whether or not to take it if it’s offered to you. At the interview itself, you’ll be able to ask more informed questions and pay attention to things that are relevant to your concerns. Knowing the desired outcome you’re looking for is pretty important since it increases your chances of getting it.

But if you accept the job offer without having identified your desired outcome, you set yourself up for the possibility of being disappointed. Maybe the money’s good and the work is interesting but you wouldn’t get to interact with very many other people—and it turns out the social aspect is really important to you. In fact, you realize you would be willing to earn less in exchange for having more interpersonal interaction.

Reality Check

In addition to changing jobs, we get into or out of relationships, take up hobbies, move from one part of the country to another, decide to go back to school (or drop out), sign up for a gym membership, start a diet, buy a complete new wardrobe—or a set of patio furniture or an expensive camera or a car. We not only fail to identify our desired outcome, we also fail to identify potential obstacles we’re likely to face along the path to getting it.

Included in the “Reality Check” exercise my clients complete when filling out a Goal Action Plan are these three questions.

  1. Imagine a positive vision (fantasy) of achieving your desired outcome and describe it. How will your status quo be changed?
  2. Describe your current reality in regard to your desired outcome.
  3. Compare your positive vision of success with your current reality.

It’s important to remember that if all you do is generate and focus on a positive vision of your desired outcome without doing anything else, you are less likely to be successful in achieving it because you will have tricked your brain into thinking you’ve already got it.

Answering all three questions is a form of mental contrasting that can help you see your situation more realistically and identify the obstacles to achieving your desired outcome. If you know the obstacles you’re likely to face, you can figure out how to deal with them ahead of time instead of being blind-sided by them. Or you may realize there’s an obstacle big enough to be a deal-breaker, at least for now.

When we perform mental contrasting, we gain energy to take action. And when we go on to specify the actions we intend to take as obstacles arise, we energize ourselves even further.Gabriele Oettingen, Rethinking Positive Thinking

Evaluate and Motivate

The more clearly you can visualize your desired outcome the better you’ll be able to evaluate how likely it is that the action you’re contemplating is the best path to getting there. If it is, great! That clarity can be highly motivating. If it isn’t, that’s great, too, because you can change or revise your plan and save yourself the time, energy, and effort of going off on a wild goose chase.

The more time, energy, or effort it will take to attain your objective, the more imperative it is that you identify your desired outcome. The unconscious part of your brain is hooked on instant gratification, but changing the status quo tends to be gradual, mundane, repetitious, and tedious. Being able to remind yourself not only what you’re aiming for (the objective means) but also why it’s important to you (the subjective end) will go a long way to keeping you focused and on track.

Developing the habit of identifying your desired outcome is useful in all kinds of every-day situations, such as responding to a social media post, attending a staff meeting, choosing a book to read, or planning a vacation. It’s a truism because it’s true: it’s considerably easier to get what you want if you know what that is.


Adapted from a previous post, D Is for Desired Outcome.

Elementary, My Dear Watson*

When you’re trying to solve a complex problem, determine a course of action, or evaluate others’ conclusions, you’ll need to engage logical System 2 reasoning, which is the opposite of System 1’s quick assessments.

I never guess. It is a shocking habit—destructive to the logical faculty. —Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four

It can be helpful to understand different types of reasoning, be able to identify the type—or types—of reasoning that are being applied in a given situation, and know how accurate each type is likely to be.

But recognizing and/or applying a reasoning process to your problem or evaluation process isn’t enough to guarantee that the outcome of that reasoning process will be sound or accurate. Skillful reasoning doesn’t compensate for faulty premises or missing or biased information.

The following descriptions (but not the examples) of deductive, inductive, and abductive reasoning were provided by Alina Bradford, writing in Live Science (livescience.com).

Deductive reasoning: conclusion guaranteed

Deductive reasoning is a basic form of valid reasoning. Deductive reasoning, or deduction, starts out with a general statement, or hypothesis, and examines the possibilities  to reach a specific, logical conclusion, according to the University of California. The scientific method uses deduction to test hypotheses and theories. “In deductive inference, we hold a theory and based on it we make a prediction of its consequences. That is, we predict what the observations should be if the theory were correct.  We go from the general—the theory—to the specific—the observations,” said Dr. Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller, a researcher and professor emerita at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

In deductive reasoning, if something is true of a class of things in general, it is also true for all members of that class. For example, “All men are mortal. Harold is a man. Therefore, Harold is mortal.” For deductive reasoning to be sound, the hypothesis must be correct. It is assumed that the premises, “All men are mortal” and “Harold is a man” are true. Therefore, the conclusion is logical and true.

Examples:

  • It is dangerous to drive on icy streets. The streets are icy now so it is dangerous to drive now.
  • All birds have feathers and robins are birds, so robins have feathers.
  • Elephants have cells in their bodies and all cells have DNA, so elephants have DNA.

[Caveat: Deductive inference conclusions are certain provided the premises are true. It’s possible to come to a logical conclusion even if the generalization is not true. If the generalization is wrong, the conclusion may be logical, but it may also be untrue. For example, the argument, “All bald men are grandfathers. Harold is bald. Therefore, Harold is a grandfather,” is valid logically but it is untrue because the original statement is false.]

Inductive reasoning: conclusion merely likely

Inductive reasoning is the opposite of deductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning makes broad generalizations from specific observations. “In inductive inference, we go from the specific to the general. We make many observations, discern a pattern, make a generalization, and infer an explanation or a theory,” Wassertheil-Smoller told Live Science. “In science there is a constant interplay between inductive inference (based on observations) and deductive inference (based on theory), until we get closer and closer to the ‘truth,’ which we can only approach but not ascertain with complete certainty.”

Even if all of the premises are true in a statement, inductive reasoning allows for the conclusion to be false. Here’s an example: “Harold is a grandfather. Harold is bald. Therefore, all grandfathers are bald.” The conclusion does not follow logically from the statements.

Examples:

  • John is a financial analyst. Individuals with professions in finance are very serious people. John is a very serious person.
  • Jennifer leaves for school at 7:00 a.m. and is on time. Jennifer assumes, then, that she will always be on time if she leaves at 7:00 a.m.
  • The water at the beach has always been about 75 degrees in July. It is July. The water will be about 75 degrees.
Abductive reasoning: taking your best shot

Another form of scientific reasoning that doesn’t fit in with inductive or deductive reasoning is abductive. Abductive reasoning usually starts with an incomplete set of observations and proceeds to the likeliest possible explanation for the group of observations (Critical Thinking Skills, Butte College). It is based on making and testing hypotheses using the best information available. It often entails making an educated guess after observing a phenomenon for which there is no clear explanation.

Abductive reasoning is useful for forming hypotheses to be tested. Abductive reasoning is often used by doctors who make a diagnosis based on test results and by jurors who make decisions based on the evidence presented to them.

Examples:

  • Given a particular set of symptoms, a medical doctor needs to determine the diagnosis that would best explain most of them.
  • Jurors have to decide whether the prosecution or the defense has the best explanation to cover all the points of evidence although additional evidence may exist that was not admitted in the case.

While using one of these three types of reasoning is a function of System 2 (conscious) cognition, evaluating them—and their results—is an example of metacognition, which is a higher order of System 2 cognition. Metacognition is a skill you can develop to help you think smarter and improve outcomes in all areas of your life.

I cannot live without brain-work. What else is there to live for? —Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four


*This quintessential Sherlock Holmes quote was never actually uttered in any of Conan Doyle’s stories about him.

Bats, Balls, and Biases

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly, rationally, and objectively and to understand the logical connection between ideas. It’s an active rather than a passive process. Because it requires System 2 (conscious) attention, it doesn’t come naturally to us and it isn’t easy.

In some instances, we equate difficult with boring. In fact, after reading the short paragraph above, you may already be bored. Critical thinking? Who cares and why bother?

Well, for one thing, it’s possible that improving your critical thinking skills might help you become a better person. But more importantly, it might help you get more of what you want and less of what you don’t want. That’s because good critical thinking skills are essential if you want to master the art and science of change. And unless you master the art and science of change, you’ll continue to be stuck with whatever the status quo happens to be—or to become.

On the BIAS

We all view what happens in the world and what happens to us through our own individual perspectives (our mental models). That means we are all biased.

Here’s an easy way to remember bias:

Beliefs and Values
Interpretations
Assumptions
Stereotypes

Beliefs are ideas or principles we have come to accept as true.
Values are our personal principles or standards.
Interpretations are explanations or understanding.
Assumptions are suppositions: what we take for granted or assume.
Stereotypes are generalizations and oversimplifications.

All of these elements operate in the background (System 1) so we aren’t usually consciously aware of them. Being biased is the normal state of affairs. We don’t have to make an effort to be biased. We have to make an effort to become aware of our biases so we have a fighting chance to act in our own best interest rather than automatically.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the human condition is that we think of the conscious part of the brain (System 2) as “I.” Yet it’s the biased unconscious part of the brain (System 1) that usually runs us. It takes no time or effort to come up with a System 1 reaction or response to a situation, question, or event because System 1 is fast, vast, and always on.

As Daniel Kahneman says in Thinking, Fast and Slow:

Everybody recognizes the difference between thoughts that come to mind automatically and thoughts that you need to produce. That is the distinction.

System 1 has an answer for everything. And its answers are correct often enough to lull us into accepting them unconditionally most of the time. But you’re not going to get change from System 1; you’re going to get same old/same old.

In addition to understanding our own biases, we also need to develop the capacity to know when it’s OK to go along with System 1’s response and when it isn’t. Well-developed critical thinking skills can help us make important decisions and solve significant problems by allowing us to effectively evaluate both the information at hand and the “intuitive” suggestions spontaneously arising from System 1.

Do I need an umbrella?

If you look outside and observe rain falling, you could safely jump to the conclusion that you need to take an umbrella with you when you go outside. You would not increase your chances of making the best decision by checking the weather report on your smartphone (getting more information) or analyzing your interpretation that rain falling means you’re likely to get wet if you go out in it.

How much does the ball cost?

On the other hand, you may not want to count on the first response that comes to mind as an answer to the following question:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10.
The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?

If you jump to the conclusion that the ball costs 10 cents, you would be wrong—no matter how confident you might feel about your conclusion.

That’s because if the bat costs one dollar more than the ball and the ball costs 10 cents, the bat would cost $1.10 for a total of $1.20. So the correct answer is that the ball costs 5 cents and the bat costs $1.05 for a total of $1.10.

Did you do the math, so to speak, or did you jump to the quick—and erroneous—conclusion? If you jumped to the wrong conclusion, how confident did you feel about your answer? And does it make you feel any better to know that between 50% and 80% of college students also come up with the wrong answer.