The Art and Science of Habits

November 13, 2017

I came across an interesting video (above, 24 mins) by James Clear on his four stage approach to establishing good habits. In it he explains each step, gives examples and adds a tip or two for how to carry it out in practice. He also alludes to scientific studies that back up the claims made.

I was particularly interested in this as I was attempting to embed some new habits myself. I started in a flurry but now realise I’ve not got as far as I hoped so it’s a good time to revisit the process to figure out what I may have been doing wrong.

Here’s the four stages, plus my own observations (additional points are made in various other articles on his web site):

1. Noticing The Habit
Point: It’s best to have a concrete plan to address the habit rather than a vague intention.

“Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity.”

Tip: Do a failure pre-mortem – imagine failing and try to think why it happened (and how you’d feel). This helps mature the plan as you can build these insights into it (it should provide extra motivation as well of course).

Recently I decided to join a local health club, partly as I thought it would be good for me and partly because they had an attractive deal (to try to get new members in). I suffer from insomnia and I thought that being fitter might help me get better sleep (this would be an extra perk, quite a strong motivator actually).

Like many others, it all started out well. How to use the equipment was explained and a personal fitness plan agreed (suitable for my age etc). The first few sessions, although it was certainly at a beginner’s level, were quite revealing – I was soaked in sweat in just after 30 mins. I’m not over-weight but I’m obviously not fit.

However after a few nights of really bad sleep, one morning I wasn’t in the mood for the fitness club so I skipped the planned session. And there the rot began, if I skipped once, what would skipping twice matter and so on…

I’m not sure how to get over this one (as there is a physical reason involved not just procrastination) but I have the suspicion that if I had dragged myself there I would have felt better in the end. Partly as I’d be a tiny bit fitter anyway plus building up confidence in overcoming barriers and not giving in to them. See also Point 4 below.

I wouldn’t say I ever looked forward to the sessions but I did feel really good afterwards so somehow I need to focus on the final feeling not the start. I’m sure that when the habit was established I’d quite like going.

2. Wanting The New Habit
Point: Review Your Surroundings.
Tip: The physical environment can affect habit formation in a big way e.g. being surrounded by distractions. Design your environment to encourage good habits.

My own office (I work at home) is rather disorganised with books and items all over the place. I tell myself that this is OK as I’m a creative type but underneath there’s a feeling that I just lack a bit of discipline.

As a immediate way out of this (tidying up my office will take a while and would of course be another distraction) I decided to work in the local library. This was quite good. For instance, reading a book (on business writing) took just a day, including notes. I was quite shocked at the progress I’d made and it made me realise just how time-sapping distractions in my office can be.

3. Doing The New Habit
Point: Just Do It. Getting started is often the problem…
Tip: Use the Two Minute Rule i.e. focus energy and enthusiasm on the start not the finish (once got going, momentum will often carry the activity on naturally).

I’ve found this to be nearly always true. It’s quite strange, as once started things often get quite motivating and it’s hard to think why there was a barrier in the first place. In a way you have to trick yourself (but cleverly).

The trouble is the two-minute rule also works for distractions. I’ll just check this (train times for example) and then start my article afterwards and then one hour later I’m still on the web (anything else interesting going on in London when I visit etc). So perhaps this is more a point of focus, simply schedule all fun, light stuff for after the bulk of the day (which is itself a habit).

4. Liking The New Habit
Point: Think of ways to bring long term advantages into the present moment. Quote from Seth Godin: ‘the best way to change long term behaviour is short term feedback’.
Tip: use the Seinfeld Strategy and focus on not breaking the chain (details of this approach are here) or if you do, get back on track quickly.

I thought I could do this via a digital diary but this didn’t really work (it got lost in all the other stuff I was writing about). I think the idea of having a real calendar stuck on a cork-board in my office would be far more effective (maybe even on the fridge as well).

Time for another go…



Writing Is Writing

November 11, 2017

Wandering in a bookshop today, I browsed a recently published book on quotes and advice on writing by various authors.

Opening the book, this was the first quote I saw:

“Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.” – E L Doctorow

This really hit home as it’s exactly what I’ve been doing the last two months, avoiding ‘writing’!

Point taken, back to the grind.

Listening Bores

November 11, 2017

I’ve written quite often on this blog on the advantages of really listening to people during conversations. A difficult task at the best of times. Here’s another viewpoint 🙂

“No one really listens to anyone else, and if you try it for a while you’ll see why.” – Mignon McLaughlin (American journalist and author)

Clarity and Confusion

October 25, 2017

Writing about scientific research:

“A common mistake of beginners is the desire to understand everything completely right away. In real life understanding comes gradually, as one becomes accustomed to the new ideas. One of the difficulties of scientific research is that it is impossible to make progress without clear understanding, yet this understanding can come only from the work itself; every completed piece of research represents a victory over this contradiction.” – A B Migdal (Russian physicist, contemporary of Lev Landau)

I think this applies to other areas as well.

Feynman’s Breakthrough, Disregard Others!

October 17, 2017

Feynman (just off centre) at Wangerooge in 1987

I started my career as a theoretical physicist, and in the late-80s I co-organised a specialist workshop on a small island, Wangerooge, off the coast of Germany (see above). I tried my luck and invited Richard Feynman (I had heard he was working in this specific area) and to my surprise and delight he accepted. You can read more about him and his outstanding achievements via WikiWand. There are also a number of posts on this blog that centre on him.

Even though he was an incredibly talented and imaginative physicist, with an outstanding popular touch, it’s interesting to note that even he had occasional bouts of self-doubt.

David and Judith Goldstein write (from here, extracted):

“In the immediate aftermath of his Nobel Prize in 1965, Feynman suffered a brief period of dejection, during which he doubted his ability to continue to make useful, original contributions at the forefront of theoretical physics. It was during this time that I joined the Caltech faculty. […]

At Chicago, Feynman and I shared a suite in the Quadrangle Club, the university’s faculty club. On the evening after his talk, we had dinner at the home of friends, Val and Lia Telegdi. The next morning, I wandered down to the faculty club dining room for breakfast a bit late. Feynman was already there, eating with someone I didn’t know. I joined them, introductions were mumbled but not heard, and I sleepily drank my morning coffee.

As I listened to the conversation, it dawned on me that this person was James Watson, discoverer with Francis Crick of the double-helical structure of DNA. He had with him a typed manuscript entitled Honest Jim (the title would later be changed by the publisher to The Double Helix), which he wanted Feynman to read, in the hope that Feynman might contribute something to the dust jacket. Feynman agreed to look at the manuscript.

That evening there was a cocktail party and dinner in Feynman’s honor at the Quadrangle Club. At the cocktail party the worried host asked me why Feynman wasn’t there. I went up to the suite and found him immersed in Watson’s manuscript. I insisted that since he was the honoree, he had to come down to the party.

Reluctantly, he did, but he fled after dinner at the earliest moment permitted by civility. When the party broke up, I went back up to the suite. Feynman was waiting for me in the living room. “You’ve gotta read this book,” he said. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll look forward to it.” “No,” he shot back, “I mean right now.”

And so, sitting in the living room of our suite, from one to five in the morning, with Feynman waiting impatiently for me to finish, I read the manuscript that would become The Double Helix.

At a certain point, I looked up and said, “Dick, this guy must be either very smart or very lucky. He constantly claims he knew less about what was going on than anyone else in the field, but he still made the crucial discovery.” Feynman virtually dove across the room to show me the notepad on which he’d been anxiously doodling while I read. There he had written one word, which he had proceeded to illuminate with drawings, as if he were working on some elaborate medieval manuscript.

The word was “Disregard! ”

“That’s what I’d forgotten!” he shouted (in the middle of the night). “You have to worry about your own work and ignore what everyone else is doing.” At first light, he called his wife, Gweneth, and said, “I think I’ve figured it out. Now I’ll be able to work again!” […]

The Football Pitch

September 25, 2017

Posted just because I liked it, such an impressive and unusual photo.

From the Guardian:

This is Henningsvær, population 460, although during September the number of people on this remote speck of land off north-west Norway will swell to 5,000 as artists and visitors arrive for the Lofoten International Art Festival (Liaf), Norway’s longest-running arts biennial. Drawings, video and installations, on the theme of “Taste the future”, are on show in three former fish processing plants. The village football pitch – one of the most spectacularly located in the world – will also be used as a backdrop for one performance.

Liaf runs until 1 October.

Photograph: Ratnakorn Piyasirisorost/Getty Images

The Importance Of A Plan B

September 8, 2017

I’m a bit of a sucker for reading business books. At least in my experience, they rarely say anything startlingly new, more often point out one aspect that may be overlooked or perhaps misunderstood and then give lots of examples for context. Nevertheless saying the same things over and again is still useful as quite often factors are forgotten or else accidentally given low priority. It’s always tempting to focus on those bits you like doing the most!

One such book I was reading recently mentioned the need, when you’re doing something new, to have a Plan B. This may seem so obvious as to be not worth mentioning. However, as an experiment, I asked a few friends (who are building startups) what their Plan B was and a clear answer wasn’t really forthcoming. I guess they were hoping it wouldn’t really be needed.

The book gave as a simple example pitching an idea for a new training course in a company. You could cold-pitch at the bottom rung of the company and stimulate interest and use this as a base to excite senior management. Alternatively you could aim for a referral to get to a decision maker straight away. The ‘If then, else’ approach to planning would be to try one and, if unsuccessful, then the other. They are quite different ways forward although with the same end result.

The point is that the options are clarified before starting an endeavour not at the end or during a project or initiative. This requires a bit of imagination and might be best carried out through conversations, brainstorming or a myriad other techniques.

An aspect of this occurs in standard business plan proposals (of which I have years of experience). The question is often asked ‘If the funding was reduced by (say) 25% what would be impact be, would it still be a viable and worthwhile project?’. This begs the question of course, as one side will be trying to reduce the funding whilst the other to increase it. It might be better to simply ask for some imaginative Plan Bs!