3 phases of Slow habit-hacking

Posted on Dec 19, 2013 | 0 comments

3 phases of Slow habit-hacking

Habits are repeated patterns of behaviour that we have become sufficiently familiar with that we pass the job of initiating that behaviour over to the subconscious. Before a habit is undertaken there is a trigger that tells your subconscious to run the habitual behaviour and the habit in turn has a consequence of providing you with a reward, for example avoidance of boredom or stress.

We’ll cover a few topics here:

  • Slow Thinking and Fast Thinking systems (just the basics) & how habits fit
  • Why the Slow Project is interested in habits
  • What Slow would recommend for habit hacking

Slow Thinking, Fast Thinking & Habits

In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, eminent psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes two systems of thinking:

System 1: Fast Thinking – intuitive, subconscious, operates quickly and automatically with little or no effort or sense of voluntary control

System 2: Slow Thinking – conscious, rational, requires effort and attention

Although Kahneman does not tackle habits directly in this book, the two system framework of understanding our decision making hardware is relevant to habits especially when looking at them through a Slow lens. A few keys points to note are that:

  • We like to think that most of our thinking happens in System 2. This is false. System 1 does the heavy lifting (we are not ‘homo rationalis’). Even when we do use Slow Thinking, the impressions and feelings that are the main sources of explicit beliefs and choices of System 2 originate in System 1.
  • System 2 takes a huge amount of effort to utilise. Think how hard it is to maintain a continuous train of thought. If we can get away with it, we pass on as much work to System 1 as possible. “Thinking is the hardest work there is, that is why so few people engage in it.”
  • Habits are part of our Fast Thinking system.
  • Studies show that self control and deliberate thought draw from the some pool of available effort. Ever noticed that your ability to forego your vices is significantly less after a busy day?
  • “The operations of System 1 are governed by habit so they’re difficult to either modify or control.”

You can read a lengthier article by Kahneman on the two systems here.

Habits serve an important function because we only have a certain reserve of cognitive energy to use on conscious, deliberate thought. We are wired for habits for the sake of economy of thought, otherwise we would waste time and energy worrying about things that do not matter very much. This makes sense; I’ve got better things to use my limited System 2 thought budget on than re-thinking how and when to brush my teeth. Our brain is interested in paying attention to novelty. Once we have become familiar with something, including our own behaviour, and comforted that it does not pose a risk to us, we relegate it to our Fast Thinking system.

Habits can, however, take over areas of our lives that we do not want them to.

Why the Slow Project is interested in habits

I am passionate about living fully as your authentic self as I discussed here. Habits can prevent us from realising that potential. Instead of experiencing discomfort that comes from change, we follow urges to go with the familiar and a comfort zone is created. However that comfort zone can prevent us from doing our best work and from truly seeing, experiencing and learning (check out this clip on experiencing awe and how comfort zones act a as a barrier).

Remember that System 1 is governed by habits and that System 1 is the source of most our thinking. Imagine how transformational learning the skills necessary to modify our habits could be.

Habits are also a great place to start for the Slow Project because habits really personalise ‘Slow skills’ such as reflecting, intention setting, mindfulness and taking small, measured steps. Kahneman didn’t coin the term ‘Slow Thinking’ with the Slow Movement in mind, however there is a lot of overlap with the information he presents and Slow concepts.

What Slow would recommend for habit hacking

Once we have ingrained a habit it is extremely hard to break out of and forge some different neural pathways. We need to use effortful Slow Thinking to re-wire ourselves out of the old habit and into a new one. As we would have all experienced, this takes more than just being able to list the reasons why we should switch habits. We must be clear on our intention, reflect, inquire into ourselves and devise change strategies that enable us to forego the immediate reward that habits provide us with for the sake of longer term outcomes.

Not easy! All too often we look for a quick fix to shortcut to our goals rather than changing ourselves from the inside out. For example finding that magic weight loss pill instead of tackling our tendency to overeat. We might try to enforce our willpower to override the habit but that stands little chance if we don’t work out why the habit is occurring (the triggers and rewards) and find a way to re-imagine ourselves.

3-Phase habit hacking approach using Slow principles

Phase 1 – reflect and observe to understand context before devising strategy

Phase 2 – create the habit hacking plan

Phase 3 – implement plan

1. Reflect and observe

  • Start with getting clear on your intention before you even select a habit to work on. Think deeply about the type of person you want to be. Consider undertaking a visioning process. Ensure this preferred identity is connected to your sense of purpose in life, not an externally imposed idea about who you should be. This will help you see all the benefits of the change of wish to undertake and tap into intrinsic motivation.
  • Observe, be curious. What are all the habits related to this identity, either useful or non-useful?
  • Reflect on what is holding you back. You will probably begin to see that there are multiple interrelated triggers and compounding factors.
  • Create a mind map, get these observations and reflections down visually, noting the relationships between various events and habits.
  • Identify one habit that would help unlock others. Habits are often weaved into a web so we want to find the best leverage point to tackle so we can keep it as simple as possible (remember this is hard work for our brains to consciously modify what happens in System 1!)
  • Ensure your really feel the change your intending to make. Write down all the benefits you will receive from implementing the change and incorporate this into a visualisation.

 2. Make your habit-hacking plan

  • Use routine to your advantage to automate non-important daily decisions so that you do not divert thinking energy away from exercising self-control
  • Use mindfulness to break vicious cycles. Notice patterns of mind non-judgementally. Watch urges rise and fall and realise that you are not your urges.
  • Use visualisation to establish new neural pathways, connected to preferred identity. Habits are connected to what we think ourselves to be.
  • Determine how you will reward yourself
  • Decide on a plan to prepare for the tough times

3. Implement the plan

  • When you are doing your new habit, provide yourself with a ‘thought reward’ that reflects your gratitude to yourself. For example, you could say ‘Nice one!’ or something along those lines.
  • Continue to make time for reflection, incorporating adjustments as appropriate.
  • Meditation and mindfulness practice will act as supporting tools to help hold and nurture that intention. These are foundational Slow skills.

If you are in Perth and interested in learning more and applying these tips, I will be running a four-session habit hacking program at The Meeting Place in Fremantle in Term 1 2014.

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I’d also be curious to know, what are your tips for breaking habits?

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