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Posted on: Sunday, 19 June 2011 by Rajiv Popat

As programmers we spend countless hours getting thrilled by tweaking small things which have huge impact on the applications we build. You want to run the same application, with the same hardware and load, 10x faster? Put a kick ass programmer on the problem and give him all the time in the world. Chances are that he will come up with better code that takes lesser memory, lesser processing cycles and runs blazing fast. And he would have done it by tweaking small things here and there. Tweaking things to make them better is fine grained in our brain as a programmers. We cannot resist the temptation of tweaking things when we know that they are going to have a huge impact on the overall product.

Practitioners of positive psychology do just  the same kind of tweaking but with your brain which is why I find books on positive psychology hugely fascinating. Shawn Achor in his book the Happiness Advantage talks about understanding the tweaking the human mind to cultivate new good habits and to turn your resolutions of changes into success stories rather than stories of failures with a tragic end.

Shawn's premise is two fold. 1) That we are creatures of habit and habits are how our brains are wired to work. 2) we have limited amount of will power in our brain. He explains the first premise that we as human beings are bundles of habit:

In my mind, though, the greatest contribution William James made to the field of psychology is one that was a full century ahead of his time. Humans, James said, are biologically prone to habit, and it is because we are “mere bundles of habits” that we are able to automatically perform many of our daily tasks—from brushing our teeth first thing in the morning to setting the alarm before climbing into bed at night. It is precisely because habits are so automatic that we rarely stop and think about the enormous role they play in shaping our behavior, and in fact our lives.

After all, if we had to make a conscious choice about every little thing we did all day, we would likely be overwhelmed by breakfast. Take this morning as an example: I am guessing that you didn't wake up, walk into the bathroom, look quizzically into the mirror, and think to yourself, "Should I put on clothes today?" You didn’t have to debate the pros and cons.

You didn’t have to call on your reserves of will power. You just did it the same way you probably combed your hair, gulped your coffee, locked your front door, and so on. And, excepting the exhibitionists in the reading public, you did not have to remind yourself all day to keep these clothes on. It was not a struggle. It didn't deplete your reserves of energy or brainpower. It was second nature, automatic, a habit.

None of this seems particularly groundbreaking to us today. But what William James concluded was indeed crucial to our understanding of behavioral change. Given our natural tendency to act out of habit, James surmised, couldn’t the key to sustaining positive change be to turn each desired action into a habit, so that it would come automatically, without much effort, thought, or choice? As the Father of Modern Psychology so shrewdly advised, if we want to create lasting change, we should “make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.” Habits are like financial capital forming one today is an investment that will automatically give out returns for years to come.

Shawn also goes on to explains how our brain uses our practice and habits to form neural pathways which ultimately make us really good at an activity:

This is also how we become skilled at an activity with practice. For instance, the first time you try to juggle, the neural pathways involved are unused, and so the message travels slowly. The more time you spend juggling, the more these pathways get reinforced, so that on the eighth day of practice, the electrical currents are firing at a much more rapid pace. This is when you’ll notice that juggling comes easier, requires less concentration, and that you can do it faster. Eventually, you can be listening to music, chewing gum, and having a conversation with someone else, all while those three oranges are flying through the air. Juggling has become automatic, a habit, cemented in your brain by a solid new network of neural pathways.

Armed with this new knowledge Shawn sets out to form a new habit of playing Guitar every day and encounters a humongous failure.

I decided to take up the guitar once again, since I already owned one and knew that I enjoyed playing it. Because common wisdom has long proposed that it takes 21 days to make a habit, I decided to make a spreadsheet with 21 columns, tape it to my wall, and check off each day I played. By the end of the three weeks, I felt confident that (a) I would have a grid full of 21 check marks, (b) daily guitar playing would have become an automatic, established part of my life, (c) my playing would improve, and (d) I would be happier for it.

Three weeks later, I pulled the grid down in disgust. Staring up at four check marks followed by a whole lot of empty boxes was more discouragement and embarrassment than I needed. I had failed my own experiment, and worse, I was no closer to telling potential dates that I was a musician. Worse still, I was shocked, depressed even, at how quick I had been to give up. A positive psychologist should be better at following his own advice!  (Of course, the feelings of failure only deepen when you realize you’re now a depressed positive psychologist.) The guitar was sitting in the closet, a mere 20 seconds away, but I couldn't make myself take it out and play it. What had gone wrong? It turns out that the telling words here are make myself . Without realizing it, I had been fighting the wrong battle one I was bound to lose unless I changed my strategy.

This failure of course leads Shawn to a second realization that we as human beings have limited will power with us.

The point is that whether it’s a strict diet, a New Year ’s resolution, or an attempt at daily guitar practice, the reason so many of us have trouble sustaining change is because we try to rely on willpower. We think we can go from 0 to 60 in an instant,  changing or overturning ingrained life habits through the sheer force of will.

In one of many studies on the subject of willpower, Baumeister and his colleagues invited college students into their lab, instructing them not to eat anything for at least three hours prior to the experiment. Then he split them into three groups.

Group 1 was given a plate of chocolate chip cookies, which they were told not to eat, as well as a healthy plate of radishes which they were welcome to eat to their heart’s content. Group 2 was presented with the same two plates of cookies and radishes, but they were told they could eat off whichever plate they liked. Group 3 was given no food at all. After enduring these situations for a significant length of time, the three groups were then given a set of “simple” geometric puzzles to solve.

Note the quotes around simple. In truth, this was another one of psychology’s favorite tools: the unsolvable puzzle. As I learned the hard way through my Help the Elderly experience, psychology researchers love using impossible games to see how long participants will persevere at a task.

In this case, individuals in Groups 2 and 3 long outlasted those in Group 1, who quickly threw up their hands in defeat. Why? Because the students who had to use every ounce of their willpower to avoid eating the enticing chocolate chip cookies didn't have the willpower or mental energy left to struggle with a complex puzzle—even though avoiding cookies and persisting on a puzzle are seemingly completely unrelated.

The point of these experiments was to show that no matter how unrelated the tasks were, they all seemed to be tapping the same fuel source. As the researchers wrote, “many widely different forms of self-control draw on a common resource, or self-control strength, which is quite limited and hence can be depleted readily.” Put another way, our willpower weakens the more we use it.

Armed with this new knowledge of how we are creatures of habits and  how our will power weakens with time Shawn now decides to reduce the activation energy it takes to start something and experiments with his own mind to see how it reacts:

I thought back to that initial experiment. I had kept my guitar tucked away in the closet, out of sight and out of reach. It wasn’t far out of the way, of course (my apartment isn’t that big), but just those 20 seconds of extra effort it took to walk to the closet and pull out the guitar had proved to be a major deterrent. I had tried to overcome this barrier with willpower, but after only four days, my reserves were completely dried up. If I couldn’t use self-control to ingrain the habit, at least not for an extended period, I now wondered: What i f I could eliminate the amount of activation energy it took to get started?

Clearly, it was time for another experiment. I took the guitar out of the closet, bought a $2 guitar stand, and set it up in the middle of my living room. Nothing had changed except that now instead of being 20 seconds away, the guitar was in immediate reach. Three weeks later, I looked up at a habit grid with 21 proud check marks.

This is a profound discovery for anyone who has ever made a new years resolution and broken it in days. Anyone who has been on a diet regiment or anyone who has ever promised himself that he was going to get more effective starting next week but the next week never came.

The book has pages full of interesting advice on how you can reduce choices that bog you down and how you can make preemptive decisions way  in advance by changing defaults.

Planning on learning how to play an instrument? Just reduce the activation energy by having the instrument handy.

Planning on going to the gym every morning? Sleep in your gym clothes to reduce the activation energy of heading out the next morning.

Planning on quitting television? Take the guitar experiment described above. Flip it by taking the remote batteries out and keeping them in a closet twenty seconds away.

Planning on being more productive at work? Close your mail client and hide it's shortcut inside 4 levels of folders such that it takes you multiple clients to activate it.

The basic premise that Shawn works with is that we are creatures of habits with limited will power. So if you are trying to form a habit don't just rely on your will power. Use your brains creatively to reduce the activation energy to do something and once you do it for sometime it will automatically become a habit forming new neural pathways in your brain that will not even require any will power to keep doing it. So if you're often faced with a blank wall on how to start your day, why not just put the visual studio shortcut on your startup list and have your computer boot to open a project you should be starting your day with?

Once you have done that why not making starting anything else that much more difficult.

Do it long enough and then distractions like Facebook and Twitter would suddenly stop being distractions. They will eventually become tools of forming connections that you use wisely during limiting times and not addictively.

The experiments and the insights that Shawn provided in this book are huge. The real question you need to answer is, how are you going to use these insights in your life to become a better programmer and a better human being.

Go tweak your life and program yourself to pick up some good habits. I wish you good luck.