Your new habit initiative is missing something

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Humans are bad at starting new habits and jettisoning old ones. It doesn’t seem to help if we know better (like, smoking will eventually cause you to suffocate to death). Our level of desire or commitment isn’t a useful indicator. We typically come up with a great idea, what could probably be classified as a goal, some change we’d like to initiate in our lives, and then we hope for some motivation to strike so we can implement the new behavior. Unfortunately, motivation is undependable and scarce, and your new habit, as well-intentioned as it may have been, never comes alive.

But there’s a solution to this. James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits, explains that while our usual understanding of how to cause behavioral change (knowledge, motivation, earnest desire, strict discipline) is mostly worthless, an implementation intention plan can make all the difference.

So what’s an implementation intention plan? Well, stated as simply as possible, it’s your plan for the time and place you’re going to execute your new behavior. Clear says, “Most people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity (P71).” When we fail to make the changes we intend we start to think we lack discipline or maybe we don’t want it enough. That’s purely false. What’s lacking is most likely not discipline, but a plan of action. When we leave our behavior change initiative to the erratic realm of inspiration and motivation we’re begging to fail. But if we’re clear about a time and a place, about when and where we’re going to execute our new habit, the likelihood that we’ll execute skyrockets. This can be as simple as choosing which chair you’ll sit in at what time in the morning to start your reading habit. I have two seats in my living room (there are more seats, just two that I claim), one couch corner for TV and video games, and one couch corner for reading and writing. It makes a weird, incredible difference which one I’m sitting in. When I’m in my reading spot, I read, when I’m in my TV spot, I watch TV. That’s about as complicated as it has to be. I execute my reading habit because I chose my seat and I decided on a regular time (quick aside, reading in the morning is the best).

I think this implementation intention plan, while super simple, is one of the most important concepts in the study of habit formation. We select times and places for all sorts of important things in life, meetings, family time, workouts, church, etc. Why do we try to sidestep this necessary piece when we’re dealing with ourselves?

An implementation intention plan is not the be-all-end-all magic dust that will guarantee the success of your new habit, but it is a critical piece and one that few of us consider. So stop worrying about whether or not you’re disciplined or motivated, pick your time and your place, and execute.

Why was gold ever the standard?

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You’ve probably heard about the ‘gold standard’ at some point, maybe in school, maybe in the news, but have you ever wondered what makes gold so special? Why would gold be the standard? 

In order for money to work it has to possess certain characteristics:

  1. It must be difficult to produce, or scarce. Commodities (such as crude oil, steel, iron, corn, copper, etc.) fail as vehicles of value because of their producibility. When a commodity becomes more valuable, production of the commodity ramps up (enriching the producers) which drives the value back down to normal levels. Commodities are relatively easy to produce, and that keeps their value in check. The fact is that commodities have more value for their practical purposes (building, eating, etc.) than as a value holder (money).
    Gold has thrived through history because it’s scarce and impossible to re-create. The only way to infuse more gold into an economy is to find it and dig it up from the ground, a costly and arduous process. Gold also doesn’t have many practical applications as a commodity (not great for building things because it’s soft, and tastes terrible, useful for jewelry though).
  2. It must be durable. Monetary units that can corrode and rot cannot maintain their value over time (even silver is a victim of this problem).
    Gold is one of the purest and durable resources on the planet. It doesn’t oxidize or corrode regardless of its surroundings, you could even find some at the bottom of the ocean in a hundreds-of-years-old shipwreck, still in perfect condition. Since it’s so durable, the supply never goes down. If a person in history found the gold, it’s likely that a person still owns that gold. This is an important point. It means that even if a bunch of people became gold miners and found a bunch of gold one year, the total infusion of gold would still be a very small percentage of the total gold available. The largest infusion of gold into a modern economy was in 1940 when the total stockpile increased by only 2.6%, it hasn’t increased by over 2% in one year since. 

These interesting facts about gold have made it the most popular currency throughout history. It doesn’t inherently hold any value, but it makes for a great global unit of account. 

Count the cost: social justice

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Costs are not fun. Instead of counting them we tend to ignore them, to our own detriment. Thomas Sowell, in his book The Quest for Cosmic Justice, presents the case for counting costs in the arena of social justice. American’s today are obsessed with justice, objectively a good thing, but it’s important to be clear about what we mean by ‘justice.’ Sowell notes that instead of the traditional concept, we’ve become more and more enamored with a cosmic, god-like, concept of justice. Traditional justice is the right to a fair trial, it’s a process, it follows a set of rules, and it’s divorced from outcomes. A prime example of traditional justice exists in sports: everyone is measured by the same set of rules while the outcome is up for grabs. It doesn’t matter where a player has come from, what advantages or disadvantages they’ve benefited from or had to overcome, justice in the game is only concerned with whether or not players are fairly and equally evaluated according to the rules. That’s traditional justice. Cosmic justice, on the other hand, is unsatisfied with disparate outcomes. The fact is that some people, through no merit of their own, benefit from growing up in healthy and/or wealthy families with great access to education and opportunities while others, through no fault of their own, are inhibited by growing up in dysfunctional and/or poor families with limited access to education and opportunities. The term ‘privilege’ has been popularized in reference to this. Instead of creating a fair set of rules universally applicable, cosmic justice is concerned with promoting equal outcomes. Most of us would agree that the fact that some people are born into bad situations is not ideal and seems unfair, so the pursuit of cosmic justice feels right. The important question is not about fairness though, the question which must be considered is, what’s the cost?

The costs of traditional justice are straightforward. We pay taxes to fund judges, courthouses, law enforcement, prisons, etc. Our taxes fund the system of law. We elect rulers and authorities who (ideally) structure fair laws to the benefit of the people. It’s scalable and achievable, albeit imperfectly. The costs of cosmic justice are much more nebulous and far-reaching. One example can be seen in the concept of reparations, forcing people today to pay for injustices done in the past, even generations in the past. It’s not fair that people were subject to slavery and served other people, for free, often for fear of their own lives. It’s not fair that families were separated from each other. It’s not fair that people were denigrated, stripped of their dignity and freedom, treated like livestock, even hunted like animals. The whole thing reeks of evil and we feel a desire to fix it. It seems like reparations could be helpful for righting past wrongs, or the least it’s better to do something than nothing. In order to execute this urge to right past wrongs, a whole other set of questions must be answered: Who gets paid? Who has to pay? How much? For how long? At what point or amount will the reparations be sufficient to remedy the incredible injustice of slavery? Who will decide all of this? Who has the insight and understanding to fairly distribute the reparations? Reparations, and social justice more broadly, is not merely a question of morality (an incredibly divisive question on its own), it’s a question of reality. The cost of social justice is beyond the scope of humanity to conjure, let alone pay. We can’t understand the depth of the injustices we seek to remedy, and if we could we would still never be able to apply an appropriate amount of money to achieve ultimate justice. Money has nothing to do with justice! The fact is that injustice exists in our world. The question is, as Sowell states, “What lies within our knowledge and control, given that we are only human, with all the severe limitations which that implies?” (P21) Social justice is not something humanity is equipped to adjudicate, we are not God.

The key to a good routine

Change is hard. As posted recently (here), it takes some attention to adjust our default behaviors. We don’t just change because we intend to. One helpful way to attack personal change is to address our routines.

Routine is defined as ‘a sequence of actions regularly followed; a fixed program,’ per Google. A routine is kind of like a large scale habit, like several habits stacked on top of each other. We’ve all got them, some are helpful, some not so much so, and most of them we probably fell into with little or no intention. But the great thing about routines is that you can mold them.

This month, my family and I embarked on a brand new routine. Routines can be very sticky, but including the whole family has made it significantly more so. Kids, especially young kids, will notoriously derail attempts at a new routine, so I’ve given up resisting and made them part of it. The routine revolves around their school schedule, which is great because school happens regardless of how my wife and I are feeling or how well or not well we slept (one of the primary derailing factors of children). The start of the school day is a cornerstone that we’ve built our new routine around. We’ve got a series of actions we take leading up to getting the kids ready and out the door, and a set of actions we take after the kids are dropped off. It happens every weekday, and we’ve settled into the regularity of it as a family. James Clear talks about habit stacking, using one of your existing habits as a cue for a new habit. The school bell is not a habit, but it functions in a similar way, it’s a regular thing that we can build additional habits around, an anchor.

5 of the best books I read in 2019

 

1. Range – David Epstein.

Range is my 2019 winner. It was the best book I read last year, and one of my favorite books related to personal development ever. By range, Epstein refers to a set of broad experiences, inputs, interests, experiments, etc. In a world that values specialization and highlights the ‘10,000-hour rule’ (which says you must dedicate 10,000 hours to something to achieve mastery), Epstein argues that hyper-focus is actually not the path to success, far more often those who have range win. Epstein encourages us to pursue hobbies and interests, to be unafraid of making a change, to never feel behind, and not because life is more fun that way, it’s actually a more effective way to live. I can’t recommend it highly enough, read Range.

2. Atomic Habits – James Clear.

There are few personal development/self-improvement books that I consider must-read, but Atomic Habits is one of them. James Clear notes that winners and losers have the same goals, what sets them apart is their systems (habits). Humans operate by default and we relentlessly fail at improving ourselves because we fail to address our default behaviors. Goals are fine, they help give direction, but only our systems can take us where we want to go. Clear guides us through how habits operate and how to make meaningful and lasting changes by changing our defaults. It’s a fascinating and fun read, and one that has had a profound impact on how I think about behavior and pursue change.

3. Factfulness – Hans Rosling.

Hans Rosling made it his life’s mission to reinform commonly help misconceptions about our world. He penned Factfulness as he battled the cancer which would eventually take his life. Through ten chapters he addresses ten fascinating topics that we routinely misunderstand (world population, poverty, bias, etc.). He emphasizes the fact that the world can sometimes be bad, while still being significantly better than it was before. By offering clarity, thoughtfulness, and objective facts, Rosling helps us to see things they way they are. It’s occasionally mind-bending, which is a good thing, and always enjoyable.

4. Born a Crime – Trevor Noah.

Born a Crime is an autobiography. Trevor Noah takes us through his wild, funny, and unlikely childhood in one of the more engaging books I’ve ever read. It’s at times hilarious (I literally laughed out loud more than once), sentimental (his relationship with his mother is remarkable), thoughtful (interacting with apartheid in South Africa), and ultimately a completely rewarding read.

5. Billion Dollar Whale – Tom Wright.

Billion Dollar Whale consistently made my jaw drop as I read it. The story is absurd, unbelievable, scandalous, incredible, and completely true! It’s about a young Malaysian fancier/businessman (Jho Low) who cons billions of dollars from the Malaysian government in a stream of devious business deals and spends it on some of the most extravagant partying the world has ever seen. The story involves Hollywood actors and actresses, world-leading finance companies, even the president of the United States. Another interesting part of this story (as if it wasn’t interesting enough) is that it hasn’t concluded yet. Jho Low is currently a wanted man hiding out, most believe, in China, but is certainly still active. In fact, his team of lawyers aggressively campaigned to ban Billion Dollar Whale from being sold, and succeeded to keep the book off British bookshelves for a year! Truly, a remarkable read.