In Part 3 of this series on “Algorithms, Habits, Epigenetics, and Motivation”, we focused on how to install habits. In Part 4, the focus will be on how to delete habits which are holding us back form being our best. Our goal of this entire series could be summed up by saying that, “We want to use our willpower wisely to install habits that run on autopilot via algorithms.”
We have ten ideas for deleting habits.
The first five ideas are pretty much identical to the ideas covered in installing habits.For that reason we will focus on the last five.
We will refer to those habits holding us back as our Kryptonite. Deleting these habits or your your number one Kryptonite can sometimes be more powerful than installing a new habit. You can think of it like driving a car with the brakes on. Sometimes it is more effective to take the brakes off than to try and drive the car faster. For instance, if you are not making the progress you would like in regards to your training, you might think you need to train harder. However, if you are only sleeping 4 hours a night and/or eating lots of sugar you will most likely not make progress. By sleeping eight hours a night and eliminating sugar you will literally be taking the brakes off and will see progress ensue.
Pickles and Cucumbers plus Danger Zones
If we have a habit that has become an addiction it is like a cucumber becoming a pickle. The point is that once a cucumber becomes a pickle it can’t go back to being a cucumber. For example, if someone is an alcoholic, they can’t have just one drink. We all have addictions on some level. The point is to be aware of them and work to get rid of those that are holding us back. This is where we need to decide or “cut off” the option to engage in the behavior. In this case we need to have bright lines and make that decision 100%. The danger zone is where we think we have the addiction beaten and it is okay to engage in te habit again. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a good thing but if you make a mistake remember you are human and begin again with renewed vigor.
Make It Really Easy to Delete and Hard To Do
If we are trying to delete a habit it is better to make it as easy as possible to do so. One way of doing this is to try and make it difficult to engage in the habit. For example, if you are trying to improve your nutrition by eliminating sugar, vegetable oils, and processed foods, it is better not to have those foods in the house. When it comes to using your willpower wisely, it is a better strategy not to have to use it unless absolutely necessary by not putting yourself in situations where you have to.
The Fundamentals of Algorithms and the Algorithms of Fundamentals
There is an interesting relationship between the fundamentals of eating, moving, sleeping, breathing, and focusing and your willpower. The more you focus on the fundamentals the more willpower you will have. There is a synergy where the more willpower you gain by getting better at the fundamentals the more willpower you will have to strengthen your fundamentals.
We already have incredible potential within us. If you think of it in this way, it really becomes a matter of chipping away and working each day to uncover that potential.
In Part 2 of this series, we did an exercise to look at our daily algorithms and habits in general. I then asked you to take a deeper look at those which were the most empowering. In part 3, I want to introduce a strategy to help you solidify those habits you have already established as beneficial, as well as, install some new habits to help you in your journey.
There are 10 ideas in this process.
Know Your Who
This idea comes from James Clear and his book, “Atomic Habits”. James suggest that when creating new habits that it is a better strategy to focus on identity versus outcome. In other words, if you can create an identity for yourself, you are more likely to act in accordance with that vision of yourself. If you identify yourself as an athlete, you are more likely to train on a consistent basis, eat healthy, and get plenty of rest. If you want to do those things but just consider yourself an average and common non athlete, you are less likely to be committed because the common person doesn’t value or relate to your lifestyle. I recommend identifying as uncommon because you are.
Know your “Why”
We keep coming back to this concept over and over. I fear that it has become cliche but I truly believe it is one of the most powerful driving forces in our lives. I recently had someone jokingly say to me during a hard training session, “Remind me why I am doing this.” It is a fair question to ask and I think it is important to revisit that question consistently. The stronger connection you can make to your why or as Brian Johnson calls it your “soul goal” the more fuel you will have to drive you towards your goal and finding your how.
Know your How
Brian Johnson recommends thinking of yourself as three types of people when coming up with a how.
Athlete– the athlete gets better and establishes habits through practice. The very “best” practice not until they get it right but until they can’t get it wrong.
Scientist– a scientist looks at data. A good scientist doesn’t have a bias towards the data nor do they judge it as good or bad. They simply use the data to learn.
Movie Maker– Rarely if ever is a movie made with out mis-takes. Very seldom is the first take the best take. Mistakes are inevitable and an integral part of making a great movie.
When we are establishing new habits we are going to mess it up. We just need to keep trying. No need to beat ourselves up, just examine the data to see what caused us to mess up and try to learn and do better.
Decide comes from the two latin words, which means to cut off. Literally, decide means that you are cutting off all other possibilities. This could also be considered being “All In”. We are sometimes too wishy washy when it comes to establishing a habit. Sometimes we need to have bright lines as in a contract. For instance, if we have an addiction we can’t say we are going to engage in that addiction only sometimes.
Think small and think smaller
Not to sound contradictory to the previous idea of deciding but sometimes to establish a habit we need to start really small. If we are attempting to establish a habit of meditating, it may be difficult to begin with 30 minutes a day. However, committing to just one minute a day is very doable for anybody. As you establish the habit you can think step by step add a little time. This is the basic philosophy of our Pro Coach nutrition program. It starts very slow and unfortunately for some they don’t understand the value of this and they get bored and quit the program early on. As the saying goes,”Inch by inch life is a cinch, yard by yard life is hard.”
Reduce the variability of behavior.
It can be very helpful when establishing a habit to try and do it at the same time everyday. I would say that I have observed this with clients over the years in regards to their training consistency. Clients who train at the same time each day overall are the most consistent. For group training in both fitness and Jiujitsu we have many opportunities to train. This sometimes can be a disadvantage if you vary your training times because you don’t establish a consistent time. It is sometimes easy to hit the snooze in the morning and tell yourself that you will go to a later class. Unfortunately, once the day gets started things get in the way and you never make to train.
Do It Daily
There are some differing opinions on how long it takes to establish something as a new habit. One thought is that you need to do something for 21 consecutive days for it to become a habit. Regardless of the number of days, there is a concensus on the fact that to establish a habit it needs to be done consistently. If the habit is something that is not conducive to be done everyday, then I would suggest getting into a routine where you can do it on the same days and preferably the same time each week. Again I use the gym as an example of this process. I would say that overall the students who come nearly everyday at the same times are the ones that tend to stick to the training. I am definitely a creature of habit when it comes to this. For instance, the recommended training for Crossfit, in the beginning, was to train for 3 days and rest for 1. I hate this format because it means your training and rest days change each week.
Just Do It
This is another big one when establishing a new habit. You need to realize you are not always going to “feel” like it. Sometimes people mistakingly think that training is easy for me because I enjoy it. It is true that I enjoy hard physical training but it is really more about how I feel afterwards and the fact that if I want to be true to my energy identity of a warrior athlete that it is the behavior that I must engage in. There are plenty of times when I don’t feel like it. I can also promise you that I rarely if ever think of training as fun. There is nothing wrong with having fun with training. I’m just saying that it is not why I do it.
Celebrations and Consequences
When you are establishing a new habit make sure you give yourself a pat on the back and acknowledge you are doing something good for yourself. ‘I think it is important to celebrate the wins. This is one that needs work for me. I have a tendency to focus on what went wrong versus what went well. On the other side, we do sometimes need to hold ourselves more accountable and one way of doing that is to establish consequences to not sticking to what we say we are going to do. To this day, the most powerful example of this was our 20X adventure with Navy SEALS Criss Smith and Brad McLeod. It was amazing to see how “no handed burpees” as a consequence of putting your hands on your hips helped break an old habit that has stuck for over 6 years now.
With all of this it is important to remember that this is all a process. It is more of a journey than a specific destination. Just remember not to be so rigid that you can’t enjoy the process. Inevitably we will screw up. When you do just get back up and try again. Remember stopping is not quitting and everybody loves a good comeback story.
As I continue to search for better ways to optimize our training in the gym and life outside, I came across what I think is an interesting and powerful correlation between algorithms, habits, epigenetics, and motivation.
I am breaking down this connection in more detail over the next several weeks but I wanted to start with the idea of motivation. Piers Steel, author of the book, “The Procrastination Equation”, did a meta analysis on papers related to the science of motivation and came up with an equation. The equation is Motivation = Value x Expectancy / Impulsivity x Delay. You could also add “Energy” to this equation and say that Motivation = Energy X Value X Expectancy / Impulsivity X Delay. In this equation we need the numerator (Energy, Value, and Expectancy) to be high and the numerator (Impulsivity and Delay) to be low, if we want the highest motivation.
I discussed the importance of Energy in a recent blog post and here I feel it is applicable because even,if you are motivated, you need energy to take action.
We can break down each of the other parts of the equation, as well. Value could also be considered your “WHY”. We have discussed this on many occasions and it is certainly applicable here. The bigger your “WHY” and the more connection you can make to it, the greater chance you will be motivated to take action. Of course, in this example, the “WHY” is only part of the equation.
Expectancy could also be considered your belief. No matter how much you say you truly want something and how big you say your “WHY” is, if you do not believe you can achieve it, your motivation to take action on a consistent basis is not going to be high.
Impulsivity in many ways could also be considered distraction. In modern society, the opportunity for distraction is at an all time high. Technology overall is a fantastic thing but it can also be an incredible distraction. If we are not aware of this potential for distraction, we let the tools use us rather than us using the tools. For me, I would say that television is probably my biggest distraction. During the week I am up early every morning and don’t get home until after 7pm on most nights. Although I value my sleep and know its importance, it can still be easy for me to get sucked into watching television and missing out on some of that much needed sleep. For instance, I would not say I am a fan of professional basketball yet I find myself sometimes staying up an extra 30 minutes to an hour to watch the playoffs. This can be true even if the game is between two teams I could care less about. Where do you find yourself being distracted?
Delay can mean procrastination and that you keep putting off something you have every intention of starting. As coaches, we see this version of delay on a very regular basis. A few of my favorite examples are:
1. I need to get in a little better shape before I come to the gym. (How has that been working for you?)
2. I really would like to learn Jiujitsu. It seems like such a cool art to learn. ( So, whats stopping you and when would now be a good time.)
3. I’m going to start my diet next week, month, year etc. (I’ll give you a different way of framing this. If you are eating, you are already on a diet. So, rather than thinking you have to change everything at once just make one small change today rather than waiting for the opportune time for the perfect mystical diet.)
Delay doesn’t have to only be about putting things off but can also be about setting goals that are too far in the future or too big to be accomplished in the near future. It is fine to have audacious long term goals but you still need to reverse engineer those goals to what can be done in the present in order to maintain your motivation.
So, what do algorithms, habits, and epigenetics have to do with motivation? The connection lies primarily in belief. When we think of what makes us what we are, what comes to mind? Some may say that our genetics play a huge role in who we are. Others may say that we are in control of who we become and the result of who we become is based on our actions and behavior. There has been a debate of nature vs nurture for some time but I think everyone would agree that both play an important role in who we are and who we become. I am currently taking a taking a course called “Epigenetic Precision Performance Coaching” and am finding it fascinating. We are all born with certain genetics and depending on what you deem as important, it is certainly true that some have been blessed with better genes than others. However, what I find most interesting is that how our genes get turned on or off or in other words expressed is largely due to lifestyle factors. Science emphatically supports this and if you believe this then you should believe you are largely in control of your health and fitness because you are ultimately in control of your lifestyle behavior.
Our lifestyle can be though of as a set of algorithms. in his book “Homo Deus” Professor Yuval Noah Harari says, ” Algorithm is arguably the single most important concept in the world. If we want to understand our life and our future, we should make every effort to understand what an algorithm is, and how algorithms are connected to our emotions.” If you think of the majority of your day as a series of “IF/THEN ” statements you can see his point.
Another way of thinking of algorithms is a series of habits. Again most of our day is habitual. So, the quality of our day and ultimately our life is largely based of the habits we have established on a daily basis. These habits affect our gene expression for good or bad.
If you understand this process, you then should have the belief that you can change almost anything. Therefore if you truly value something your expectancy of being able to achieve it should be high and as result your motivation.
Change and improvement may not be easy. It certainly may not be fast but it does not have to be mystical. Change and consistent progress is possible. It is simply a process. More on this process in part 2.
I think nearly everyone is in agreement with the fact that nutrition is one of the critical areas if you are pursuing life optimization and being your best self. We have discussed this on many occasions in the past. However, the book , “The Happiness Diet”, brings to light another important aspect of diet which is just how important your diet is regarding not only having a lean and energized body but a sharp brain and balanced mood.
I think the tendency is to focus on diet in terms of how it affects our body composition, weight, performance and health in general. What we may not be as aware of is foods powerful affect on how we feel. I remember first being introduced to this idea when reading Dr. Barry Sears book, “The Zone Diet”, many years ago. He repeatedly suggested thinking of food as a drug. He mostly was referring to its influence on the hormones insulin and glucagon. Although those hormones are important, food affects much more than that.
A quote from the book, ” What if you discovered that the best place to begin your personal pursuit of happiness is at he end of your fork? Emerging research from the fields of neuroscience and nutrition shows that by changing what you eat, you can improve your mental and emotional well-being. You can stabilize your moods. You can improve your focus. You can even make your brain grow.”
“A large study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that eating processed foods, such as refined carbohydrates, sweets, and processed meats, increased the risk of depression by about 60%. Eating a whole food diet on the other hand, decreased the disease by about 26%.”
The recommendations for “Happiness Diet” are much the same as we have been making. One main recommendation is to avoid the MAD or SAD! This simply means avoid the modern American Diet of the Standard American Diet which is high in sugar, vegetable oils, and processed foods. There are many studies out there that may support different dietary recommendations, as far as what is best; however, there is no study saying a diet consisting of sugar, vegetable oils, processed foods, and flour is good. Therefore, if you eliminate those things and eat whole foods you are moving in the right direction.
If you need a little extra motivation to stay away from processed foods, the book gives some interesting facts from that industry. Some of the biggest brands in the processed food industry are owned by tobacco companies. Both Nabisco and Kraft are owned by tobacco companies. Just saying, that these companies aren’t know for putting the health of their consumers as a priority and they spend 10 billion dollars a year marketing to kids.
If you need another reason to stay away from processed foods consider this. “Deciphering food label ingredients leads to unappetizing results. Take the innocuous-sounding castoreum, which is used to enhance the flavor of puddings, candies, and some frozen dairy desserts. You might be surprised to know that it’s derived from beavers—beaver anal glands.”
We can get very precise with recommendations for nutrition, supplements, etc., but first you should get a handle of the basics. This is our basic philosophy.
Learn to commit. Focus on the process and realize progression will not be a straight line but more of a zig zag. It will not be perfect and it doesn’t have to be.