0175 – Behavioral change, Equilibrium states, Addiction, Ugly progress

This is to be my 2nd vomit of the day.  It’s been a while since I did two vomits in a day. If I can maintain 2/day, it’ll take me 410 or so days to hit my target. If I can do 3/day (both commutes + before bed), it’ll take about 270 days or so. Realistically, I don’t think I’ll do more than 1/day on average. I don’t know. We’ll see.

Immediate Gratification

I had some thoughts earlier about how the human impulse for immediate gratification is probably the source of a lot of what is annoying or suboptimal about the world. We want quick solutions to our problems, so we blunder ahead without taking the time or trouble to think about things. [1]

The simple fact that we live today environments that we haven’t evolved for yet suggests to me that we can “win” many conflicts, confrontations and complications just by being the most thoughtful, reserved and analytical player. [2]

While you want to be analytical, it’s important, I think, to be capable of using force if necessary, and to signal the ability to use that force, but generally speaking- modern life is characterised by opportunities to use thoughtfulness as means to achieve your ends. (I’m sure people have written about this even 3000 years ago. It becomes more relevant everyday.)

I’ve lapsed into abstractions and generalisations. Let’s bring it back to reality. What does this mean for me in my daily life?

There have been times where I’ve deeply regretted not being physically stronger. Yet so far this regret has not translated into a lifestyle change that makes me stronger. Exercise for me happens most frequently when I frame it as a tool for getting mental clarity. It helps me think better and make better decisions.

Behavioral change and equilibrum states

Earlier at lunch I was chatting with a couple of colleagues about behavioural change. When a group of people attempt a lifestyle change, some people persist while others fall off the wagon. What differentiates the successful instances from the unsuccessful ones? [3] Clearly there’s a whole system of things that need to come into play- it’s rarely ever one single adjustment.

Think about it. Things tend to end up in equilibrium states. If one random input is all it takes to transition you from one state to another- say, from a couch potato to an athlete, then chances are that you will make that transition on some arbitrary, random day. Chances are that you’ll already have done it. Because changing one single element is easy to do.

What actually happens is that we get highly invested in our positions, and we develop or inherit multi-faceted systems that keep us where we are. Let me say that again for emphasis- we get into highly-stable local maxima, and what got us there is designed to keep us from going anywhere else. It becomes a sort of ‘regulatory framework’.

So if you’re a smoker, chances are that you’ll develop habits and rituals that keep you tied to the root habit. You’ll smoke after meals, and meals feel incomplete without the smoke. You’ll smoke after sex. You’ll smoke whenever you drink. You’ll smoke when you hang out with your friends, who “coincidentally” all happen to be smokers too.

Before you became a smoker, smoking was your form of escape from reality. It was a getaway. It was thrilling, exciting. After a while, the getaway envelopes the totality of your reality. It seeps into your skin and into every fibre of your being, it becomes a weight around your ankle. The new lens became a new set of blinders.

Addiction aided, abetted and protected by lifestyle

The same happens for any kind of addiction or bad habit. It’s an entire lifestyle. A world view, even. This is one of the hardest parts of behavioral change. You effectively have to perform a religious conversion of sorts. You need to change the person’s fundamental identity.

I think that’s the single most important thing. If the person’s identity doesn’t change, any behavioral change you witness initially is likely to be a farce, a performance. (Obviously, they have to at least somewhat want the change. Otherwise you’ll need to first convince them, and it just gets an order of magnitude harder each step of the way.)

It’s not so black and white, of course. What happens is that you first need to consider the possibility of an alternate identity. You experiment with slightly different behaviour… you need to “try out” all the components separately and have a couple of full-dress rehearsals before you can finally make the leap and change altogether.

Early progress looks pathetic from the outside

From the outside, this looks really messy, ugly and unproductive. It’s the equivalent of emptying out your drawers onto the floor- your room just got even messier. But changes are happening. You’re growing a new self-concept, new behavior, new goals, new values. And for a period of time you will be carrying two sets of everything inside your head.

It’s very, very, very hard work. Failure will accost you every step of the way and it will be incredibly discouraging. You will keep wanting to go back to your old, familiar ways. And sometimes you will actually go back- and the challenge is to wake up the next morning and try again.

Do it for the kids

I do think it helps a lot to have goals and motivations that are outside of yourself, to do things for people who are not yourself. The Thai smoking ads come to mind. People treat kids better than they treat themselves, so do it for the kids (if you can do that without moralising and being an authoritarian dick about it). Do it for your own kids. Do it to fix all the problems you unfairly encountered when you were growing up.

The world is very badly designed. There are tonnes of things every single one of us can do to make it slightly better than it was before. But to do those things we often need to discipline ourselves. We need to change ourselves so that we get more out of ourselves, so that we have enough to give to others. It’s all ultimately energy from the Sun.

Power of 1-1s in daily life

One of the cool things that my company does is regular 1-1s. I hadn’t really heard of the concept before I started work- I think it should be something that every organization does rigorously. Ben Horowitz has written a couple of cool things about them here and here.

If I have grown and developed significantly as an individual in the past couple of years, I think a lot of it has to do with the work environment I have, and the 1-1s I have with my boss. It’s just this really refereshing opportunity to reflect on what I’ve done, who I’m being, what I ought to be doing, what I ought to focus on, what the weak points in my thinking are, things like that.

Since doing 1-1s I’ve started to find regular “filler” conversations to be almost excruciatingly pointless. Not immediately- I went through a lengthy transition period, I think- but I’m now quite clear about this. Every conversation is an opportunity for people to learn, grow, do better. Sometimes people want to do small talk, but I think even then conversation can be guided towards interesting directions. I’m still a beginner at this, but I think the important thing is to ask questions and then wait and listen. Let people explain themselves, while maintaining a frame of genuine curiosity and interest rather than judgement. And it’s genuinely interesting.


I think I have a deep-rooted insecurity when it comes to conversations and conversational space. I like to talk a lot, and I do have a genuine interest in people and ideas, but I don’t shut up and listen nearly as much as I ought to.

The main reason I do this, I think, is because I was used to growing up in environments where nobody cared what you thought, and if you wanted to be heard you had to reach out and grab it for yourself. [4]

I also really enjoyed getting people to agree with me, and you can do that by quickly repeating something that is parallel to whatever a person is saying. So a person might be saying, “Oh, today at work I had a rough day because of this conflict I had with X about Y”, and I might go “Oh, yikes, that sucks. It’s just like the conflict in that movie/book/story…”. And they agree, and the conversation then changes to some degree because of it.

I’m starting to realize that it’s far more interesting to just sit back, nod, and ask questions. Let other people tell their stories. It’s a lot more interesting, and it actually feels really fulfilling when you make people feel comfortable enough that they start opening up to you more than they open up regularly, even when they’re by themselves. It’s an incredible privilege, and an incredible gift, really.

So yeah. Less impulsiveness. More listening.


[1] This was probably evolutionarily advantageous on the savannah 100,000 years years ago. Whoever moved quickly and urgently survived, those who paused to contemplate all possibilities were killed by predators. False positives were harmless then (harmless rustle in the grass misinterpreted as predator), while false negatives were potentially fatal (predators written off as harmless rustles in the grass). As a result, we evolved to be a flighty, edgy species.

[2] Of course, there are exceptions to this. And not being aware of these exceptions (or assuming that they don’t exist) could literally kill you. Life is hard, brutish and complicated. I recommend reading The Black Swan and Antifragile to get a better sense about this. Ribbonfarm has some cool things too. But the fundamental idea is basically always cover your arse and don’t let yourself get killed by some random fluke. A small probability of a catastrophic event is worth defending against, because you only have one life and once you die, game over- even if you played your hand ‘right’.

[3] I just realized that I didn’t actually answer this directly, because I got carried away talking about the complexity of behavioral change. I don’t know the precise answer to this question- if I did I would be a best-selling author, coach, etc. But I think initial conditions have a lot to do with it.

If we go back to the Heath Brothers’ analogy of the elephant rider (mahout) and the elephant, a lot of change is dependent on the fundamental inclinations of the elephant. A skilled rider can’t get the elephant to go somewhere it doesn’t want to go. So you need a really important, quality Why. And you need to stress-test the fuck out of that Why. Once you have a reasonably good Why for something that’s an achievable distance away (I want to go to Mars to expand the consciousness of the species is a great Why, but it’s not very actionable- you need to pick smaller things that get you closer to the big thing.)

[4] This also really reminds me of my time as a musician. I used to end up playing too loud, too fast, with too many notes. I was too edgy and anxious to learn to chill out and just sit in the pocket, be in the music rather than ahead of it. A lot of my life is about me learning to let go, to loosen up, to get synchronized with the rhythm and tempo of things rather than rushing ahead and then feeling overwhelmed.

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