June 18, 2019

Updates (And why it's so hard to write blog posts)

About every six months, I think to myself "I should write a blog post!" Then, I do. Unfortunately, this means that my posting is irregular at best. Perhaps I should embrace that idea, and post a bi-yearly update. But I will avoid sticking to that. I think that with the advent of summer I should be able to spread my wings, and post at least one update a month. Nothing crazy like once a week. Well, I'll try. But it's a bit difficult to see myself keeping to any kind of schedule.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I'd like to get to the actual topic that I'm interested in. What is that? You might ask. Well, it's: why can't I write a blog post every week? At first glance, this seems like a way of explaining away my pervious blogging inconsistency, and in a way, it is. More than that, however, I want to take a deeper look at why it's hard to form habits, and what we can do to make that process easier.

As with all good things, I started with a google search "Why is it so hard to form new habits?" A Quora post by Andrew Ferebee (Another inspirational speaker) breaks the habit down into three components:

  1. The Cue or Trigger: This is the part of the habit loop where you are triggered to take some sort of action through a cue in your internal or external environment.
  2. The Action: Good or bad, this is the part of the habit loop where you actually take action on the habit you want to adopt or drop.
  3. The Reward: This is the part of the habit loop where your brain receives a reward for taking the desired activity (or not as you will see in just a second).

As a machine learning enthusiast (or a professional? I don't know if I can call myself that) this seems a lot like reinforcement learning. The three elements here correspond to "Observation", "Action" and "Reward". Ah, so this is something we can work with. Perhaps the formation of habits is just  operant conditioning. But something sticks out to me from this section: the reward.

In many cases, when we form habits, the reward is intangible. When (or if) I go to the gym, I don't see results in the first minute after a workout. When I brush my teeth, the benefit is precautionary, which means that I don't see any reward (perhaps ever), and only have a chance to avoid a negative effect. This means that the reward signal is faint, and it's hard for me to attribute the actions that I am taking (habits) with the long-term rewards that I need to make those habits stick.

One of the things that I recalled, when thinking about this is a study (by UCL) which showed that 18 and 254 days to form a concrete habit. Thus, by reminding yourself (and just doing it on faith) for two months, you eventually can connect the reward signal to the things that you are doing. This is precisely what Ferebee talks about in his Quora answer: the reward loop is too long.

The obvious answer is, of course, to shorten the reward loop. Ferebee says things like the following will improve the reward loop signal:

  • Eat dark chocolate after your workout
  • Buy a time based coffee maker that has a fresh cup brewed when you wake up
  • Reward yourself with 15 minutes of gaming after an intense 90 minute work session

The biggest problem with these is that they are all intrinsic motivation. We all ascribe these motivations to ourselves, and thus, we are responsible for allowing ourselves the reward. While this takes care of some amount of the reward signal, a lot of the time, the brain will be willing to say "I didn't do this, but let's just eat some of the chocolate anyways." I am particularly susceptible to this lack of discipline, so it got me thinking about how I can improve this.

The thought then was, well, make something or someone else the external motivator. In many cases, this is shown to work particularly well. People are more likely to lose weight if they post about it on social media, and one of the dominant ways of getting yourself into the mood to do things is by making yourself responsible to others.

This gave me a thought: Can we enforce this same kind of external reliability without relying on social behavior. The first thing that I thought of was an app that tracked your heart rate, and automatically ordered chocolate for you (with your money of course) if you kept it above a certain rate for a certain amount of time. With the exception of encouraging people to die in the name of a delicious bar of chocolate, this isn't actually a bad idea.

Unfortunately, while researching this particular app idea, I found a study which showed that instant gratification doesn't always have the effect that it should on increasing habit behavior. Over time, the ability for instant gratification to improve your habits declines. This is where it is important to instill intrinsic motivation. No app can do that - that's something that you have to do for yourself. And that's hard. But maybe, just maybe, instant gratification can last for those 254 days that it might take to become automatic. To see that full feedback loop. Who knows? Not me, for sure.  

So, is this why I don't write blog posts? Yep. This is my excuse. A lack of automatic chocolate ordering. But until that happens, I'm going to try to be a bit more regular, and I'm going to try to apologize for my irregularity a bit less!