This post was written as a thank you to the generous folk who have donated to my Help Refugees x Thighs of Steel fundraiser. Collectively, we’re riding around the world to raise vital funds for refugees facing COVID-19 in dire conditions.
If you get anything out of this blog, I’d be very grateful if you could chuck us a few quid. Thanks!
I recently finished reading Wendy Wood’s Good Habits, Bad Habits and I thought I’d share a little more and introduce you to your own ‘second self’.
‘The world of habit is so self-contained,’ Wood writes, ‘it makes sense to think of it as a kind of second self – a side of you that lives in the shadow cast by the thinking mind you know so well.’
The distinction between these two ‘selves’ will be familiar if you’ve ever read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, where he describes the differences between System 1 (automatic) and System 2 (attention) thinking.
But where Kahneman is resigned to the incorrigibility of human error in System 1, Wendy Wood celebrates the superhuman strengths of our second self and urges us to harmonise our two selves or systems.
This is an idea with a long, if partially forgotten, lineage. In The Principles of Psychology (1890) William James declared:
‘The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.’
Both selves have strengths and weaknesses, but Wendy Wood argues that for too long we have ignored or maligned the second self:
‘If our noisy, egotistical consciousness takes all the credit for the actions of our silent habitual self, we’ll never learn how to properly exploit this hidden resource. Habits will be a silent partner, full of potential energy but never asked to perform to their fullest.’
It’s time we got to know our second selves.
Introducing David and Dave
So I have two selves: isn’t this great news? To get away from total confusion, let’s call them Dave and David.
Until now, David has been the all-conquering, egotistical genius taking the praise for everything this body accomplishes. As far as David is concerned, writing these words is an act of sheer will alone – the finely tuned composition and typing habits of Dave have nothing to do with anything. David is the ego-self, or Kahneman’s System 2.
In contrast, Dave goes about his business quickly, quietly and easily – automatically, in fact. Dave is the second self or Kahneman’s System 1.
We know almost too much about David, so forget him for a minute (he’s throwing a strop already). What, according to the science so far, are Dave’s strengths and weaknesses?
Let’s start with the weaknesses because that’ll keep David happy for a second:
Completely thoughtless and utterly uncritical.
Heavily dependent on familiar cues, he’s a total fish out of water in even a slightly different context.
Can’t react to changing events and will carry on executing the same orders, regardless of whether the result is actually useful any more.
Can suck the fun out of anything, even the most exquisite romance, by sheer repetition.
Can’t set his own conscious goals.
Doesn’t Dave sound like an idiot? Yes he does, but stop judging and let’s look at his strengths for a second.
Can’t be bribed with rewards. Can’t be punished either.
Doesn’t need willpower to resist temptation: simply executes. Almost impossible to distract.
Utterly committed to delivering relentlessly, effortlessly, day after day after day, through good times and bad.
Cheap to run. Doesn’t guzzle calories like profligate David does.
Very chilled. Dave doesn’t panic, worry or ever get confused about what to do
Actually thrives in times of stress or when the body is tired, hungry, sleep deprived.
Incredibly fast – so fast that action comes before even thought (Dave is Kahneman’s ‘thinking fast’).
Waaaaay tougher, stronger and more resilient than weeny David.
Highly skilled. It’s Dave who can play guitar, speak pretty good English, chop vegetables with a sharp knife, and ride a bike (although not all at the same time) (yet). Dave can be trained to do almost anything.
Makes life feel meaningful (say what? for real – this is Dave’s domain)
Although Dave might not set goals initially, it’s Dave who achieves my goals and, through his repeated actions, ends up deciding what I value. Mind blown.
Dave sounds like a total LEGEND!
Not one, but two of Wendy Wood’s studies (2002, 2005) found that 43 percent of our behaviour is automatic. If that figure is anywhere near accurate, then the sooner David lets Dave strut his stuff, the better it’ll be for both (?) of us (!).
As Wendy Wood concludes in Good Habits, Bad Habits, working in harmony with our second self isn’t only more productive, it’s also ‘a simpler, more integrated way to live your life.’
We all live habitually already. Most of us just aren’t aware of it. And because of that, we’re ignoring a big part of who we are and why we do what we do. We’re also ignoring all the many ways we could be doing things better.
For the past couple of weeks I’ve been eating what I’m calling an eggy vegan diet: vegan plus eggs. (On the eggs: not many, and none in the past week.)
Why am I doing this? Mainly because there has never been a better time to make radical changes to my sturdiest habits — and that definitely includes my diet.
Contrary to appearances, this post is less about veganism and more about habit making and breaking, using as an example a fundamental part of our daily lives that a lot people believe is almost impossible to change: diet.
The story begins with fragility and its opposite: antifragility.
We are all antifragile
Extreme constraints like those we face in lockdown are often seen as negatives, but without anything holding us in we’d be nothing more than puddles of carbon and water.
Constraints aren’t just fundamental to our existence; they’re the only reason we have anything worth living for: the arts, crafts, science and even play.
In golf, players have to get a little white ball into a marginally bigger hole 410 yards away. That’s the game. But skill only comes into the picture when we add the limiting constraint: the players have to move the ball with a metal stick. Without this constraint, Tiger Woods isn’t worth $640 million.
Constraints ostensibly make things harder, but in so doing make things possible.
This guiding principle explains why humans are, to borrow the neologism of Nicholas Nassim Taleb, antifragile. Fragile objects shatter when mishandled. Robust objects are impervious to mishandling. But antifragile objects actually improve with mishandling.
It’s a wild concept, but true nevertheless: press ups only make you stronger by first breaking down your muscle fibres. At school, understanding begins with confusion.
Similarly, if we adopt an antifragile mindset, the rough treatment we’re suffering under Covid-19 will make us stronger. A sudden upturning of our nest might be mistaken for a vindictive catastrophe; it is rather a ‘moment of change’.
Isolation as a global ‘moment of change’
‘Moments of change’ are occasions where the circumstances of an individual’s life change considerably within a relatively short time frame.
Remind you of any recent events?
This definition comes from a 2011 report by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), which summarises the ‘moments of change’ research, analysing these rare opportunities for changing our behaviour, our habits and even our most primal conceptions of who we are.
The NEF study picks out some common moments of change that happen occasionally in most lifetimes: leaving home for the first time, the transition to parenthood, moving house, retirement, energy crises and global recessions.
But I can’t think of a more dramatic moment of change in my lifetime than the Covid-19 pandemic.
Change your environment, change your behaviour
Habits, by definition, are automatic patterns of behaviour: actions we take without really thinking too much. They can be remarkably stubborn and resistant to change — but they’re also tightly bonded to our surroundings.
Think about how hard it would be trying to work down the pub compared to when you’re in the office. You’re the same person — your habits haven’t gone anywhere — but the different environments cue different routines and end up completely changing how you behave.
The opportunities presented by moments of change come about because most of our habits are actually interactions with our immediate physical and social environment.
For most of us, these interactions have been disrupted by self-isolation. The transition from your workplace to working at home is an obvious example of the disruption in environmentally cued behaviour that a lot of us are feeling right now.
But what’s happened to your shopping environment, your eating environment, your exercise environment, your socialising environment? If you’re anything like me, then everything has been thrown up in the air.
All our habitual environments have been shaken up, interrupting the routine behaviours they usually cue.
As NEF put it:
When something interrupts performance of the old behaviour, the need for some degree of conscious direction returns — and once this has happened, the behaviour may be more susceptible to change.
Right now, interruption is happening on a massive scale. Suddenly, we all have to exercise a ‘degree of conscious direction’, perhaps for the first time in many years. The habit discontinuities we’re all facing are opportunities to change our routine behaviour in our relationships, work life, consumer habits, physical fitness and — why not? — diet.
Every breakfast for the past three years, I’ve unerringly eaten 250g of high-fat Greek yoghurt, with oats, raisins and nuts. Not, you’ll note, vegan.
A large proportion of meals also came with grated cheese and I’d frequently demolish an afternoon snack of creamy nuts: that’s about 100ml of double cream in a bowl filled with nuts. Not, you’ll note — heck, that’s scarcely edible for most people, let alone vegan.
So going vegan — even eggy vegan — was not going to be easy on my gut.
Lo and behold, my first four days without dairy were peppered with splitting headaches and slothish lethargy. From previous dietary experiments, I’d been expecting this miserable side effect, so I knew how to barrel through.
I like to imagine that these headaches were my dairy-loving bacteria putting up one hell of a fight. On the fifth day, though, they are defeated: starved out of existence and replaced with bacteria that prefer to get their nutrition from celery sticks and tempeh.
This explanation, if not completely upheld by science, is at the very least ‘sciency’, as I explain in this post about quitting sugar. No matter its degree of accuracy, this ‘explanation’ eases me through the temporary fog of headaches and tiredness, out to the other side: eggy veganism.
I have taken this moment of change to try on an alternate personality that’s interested me for a while.
But will I want to maintain the diet when lockdown ends?
We don’t want ‘normal’
Historical data from the NEF report suggest that behaviour changes made under pressure don’t tend to last once the crisis is over. Indeed, the hope that everything will go back to normal is why many people are happy to temporarily surrender their usual lifestyles in the first place.
It’s almost certain that I’ll be offered meat or dairy when I return to society — most of my friends and family aren’t vegan and I’m not so wedded to this lifestyle that I’d turn down food if they’re kind enough to cook for me.
But forget other people, after lockdown I myself will be tempted to choose dairy much more frequently than I am now.
Before Covid-19, I went food shopping every couple of days; at the moment, it’s once every 7-10 days. That means I only have to ‘resist’ buying meat or dairy once a week — easy.
My shopping habits feed (pun intended) directly into my eating habits. Change my shopping environment and I change my eating environment: at home I only have eggy vegan choices now.
When society opens back up, will I maintain my new shopping habits? Will my post-lockdown shopping habits, whatever they are, support or undermine my new eggy vegan diet? I don’t know.
But those of us who have used this moment of change to try on an alternate personality — and decide that we want to keep it — must reject the almost irresistible return to normality. We don’t want to abandon our old habits temporarily. We don’t want to go back to ‘normal’ any more. We want change.
It’s one thing to build good habits in this ascetic Covid-19 environment; it’s quite another making them robust enough to survive the shock of opening up. But by anticipating the challenge of impending normality — in the way that I anticipated the headaches and lethargy of quitting dairy — we have at least a chance.
So, the big question: how did I replace my heaped bowl of yoghurt every morning? The answer, quite simply: I didn’t — I couldn’t. What in the plant kingdom could possibly imitate animal fats? Genetically, I don’t think it’s possible.
(And, no, the answer is not ‘oat crème fraîche’. Vegetables oils are exactly that: oily. They slimily slither over the tongue and cling to a clammy palate. Dairy fats are, in contrast, fatty. They somehow sink to the bottom of the stomach, leaving a feeling of satiety and a clean taste in the mouth. Mine at least.)
The answer was to cut the Gordian Knot, remove ‘breakfast’ entirely and replace it with something even better than breakfast.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve started my day with a 30g pea and rice protein shake, which I drink while cracking on with work. The green mush is much easier to digest than a big bowl of dairy and keeps me alert throughout my new-found, vegan-inspired morning work regimen.
Smug as fuck.
We’ve. Got. Time.
It’s worth saying that habit change isn’t the same for all people, in all environments and for all behaviours.
I personally find going ‘cold turkey’ has been the best approach for changing diet and has served me well when cutting out sugar and caffeine. I didn’t want to gradually phase out dairy: it would’ve been too hard for me to resist binging. The downside is that I knew I’d have four days of headaches.
But going from zero to a sixty with press ups or running is the quickest way to fail. Run a marathon tomorrow and I’ll be injured for a month. If I’m injured, I can’t build a habit. Far better to start slow and build than to rush for the line and fall.
As well as physical limitations, there are mental limitations.
It doesn’t make sense to force myself to do yoga if I’m not enjoying it. That’s why my daily yoga habit is simply to do as much yoga as I feel like. At the beginning, nearly five months ago, that was five minutes before bed. Now it’s around 20 minutes, twice a day.
My goal is not the accomplishment of some landmark. My goal is to build a sustainable, healthy lifestyle. Cold turkey is one approach and a slow-build while only doing as much as I enjoy is another. For both, I find this mantra helpful: don’t miss twice.
Whichever approach you find most helpful, if there’s one thing we’ve learnt over the past four weeks it’s to slow down and take each day as it comes. We’ve. Got. Time.
Over to us
Kintsugi is the traditional Japanese art of mending broken pottery with lacquer dusted with powdered gold. Sure — super glue also works, but kintsugi is a reminder that we can choose to see the beauty in broken things.
Our work habits are broken. Good. Our social habits are broken. Good. Our shopping habits are broken. Good. We’ve probably got another 18 months of on-and-off lockdown. What are we going to do with this fracture in our habits? Are we fragile, are we going to shatter? Or are we antifragile, are we going to fill the cracks with gold?
My eggy vegan diet isn’t nearly as smug as it sounds. After two weeks, I still get faint bouts of acid reflux and I’ve had to shelve the peanut butter. I’ve read some stuff about ‘alkalising’ my food, but until I’ve had a chance to read more studies, I’m dubious.
This is still a journey of exploration for me. Yesterday I discovered one of the great secrets of vegan cooking: miso paste — in fact, sauces in general. The hand blender has become my closest ally.
I know some of you are plant-based: if you are vegan (or close enough), then I’d love to hear what you’ve learned so far. Honestly. Please drop me an email.
Whatever you think about veganism, I hope I’ve convinced you that isolation is a rare opportunity to get inside your own head, have a rummage around, learn some cool stuff and change for the better — or at least for the more interesting.
Last Sunday I finished reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. With its tawdry promise of ‘a revolutionary system to get 1 per cent better every day’, I resisted reading this book for more than a year.
I wish I hadn’t.
It’s an excellent summary of the current research on habit-building and habit-breaking.
One of the deceptively simple insights that has stayed with me is that every action you take is a vote for your future.
If you write one newsletter, then that’s one vote for becoming a newsletter-writer. If you only ever write one newsletter, you’re not going to accumulate more than one vote and you’re unlikely to become a newsletter-writer. That single vote will be swamped by all the other votes you’re constantly casting for other future selves, whether that’s ‘master carpenter’ or (in my case) ‘internet browser’.
If you keep publishing newsletters every week, then you’re regularly casting votes for ‘newsletter-writer’ – and, more than 150 Fridays later, here we all are.
What’s made this newsletter-writing habit stick for the past three years? I think there are, appropriately enough, three major reasons.
Firstly, and most importantly, I’m accountable to my readers. I have made a promise to write something interesting for you to read every Friday and I want to make damned sure I deliver. So thank you for sticking with me. You are my habit!
Secondly, I have a set time every week that I publish: Friday. If I miss a Friday, like I did last week, then I publish as soon as I can. Missing one Friday deadline isn’t a disaster and skipping a whole week is hardly likely to cause much of a cataclysm either, but habits like this are all too easy to let slide.
As James Clear says: don’t miss twice. I’ve now got this motto written down in the notebook where I record my work progress.
Thirdly, I enjoy writing. Writing is creative, obviously, but it’s also critical. Writing is a way of being in the world. Putting words down on paper forces me to think a lot more about what I do – and pushes me to do a lot more than I think.
Writing the scripts for Foiled is a slightly different experience. Rather than delivering content directly to an audience every Friday, the accountability for a radio series like Foiled lies in making my co-writer laugh and in regular deadlines throughout the three-month writing process: pitching story ideas, drafting story beats, writing the first and second drafts, and incorporating writers room punch-ups.
What makes a writing habit hard is when there is no one reading.
Since 2014 I have written a regular diary and I’ve been aiming for at least 1,000 words per day since 2015. I have more or less managed to stick to this habit, as this count shows:
2014: 314,084 words across 353 entries
2015: 392,241 ” ” 354 “
2016: 327,837 ” ” 320 “
2017: 248,865 ” ” 254 “
2018: 292,593 ” ” 313 “
But in 2019 I’ve only written 159,220 words in my diary – less than half you’d expect by the beginning of December.
This year so far, I’ve skipped 141 days. On 42 percent of days, I haven’t written anything at all in my 2019 diary. Can this still be called a habit?
In comparison, during my most ‘successful’ diary year of 2015 I missed only 11 diary days, just 3 percent.
Browsing the data, it’s obvious that James Clear’s rule holds fast: don’t miss twice. It’s astonishing how quickly a habit as strong as my five-year daily diary can break down after I skip just one day.
When nothing bad seems to happen after I skip a second day, my habit easily unravels and I go one or two weeks with hardly an entry.
So don’t miss twice.
I say that nothing bad seems to happen, but my daily diary is where I work out all the kinks in my life, personally and professionally.
My 2015 diary was enough of a success for me to start putting together a collection of highlights.
Looking back over words that I wrote nearly five years ago, the value of this daily habit comes clear. I can watch as moments of realisation surface, like in this entry from 5 January 2015:
There is no such thing as a great writer or a great anyone. We are all partners. My story is your story. My story is only a story if you’re invested in it; the language of finance is not misplaced. You invest in my story; you become a partner – an equal partner, no less. My story cannot get off the ground if it doesn’t have outside investment. I need that, we need that, the story needs that.
Diary writing is one of the most important habits in my life. I can scarcely pinpoint what the diary does for me, but I know that I am better off when I am writing regularly for nobody but myself.
Postscript: There’s something similar going on with running. At first glance, the benefit of a running habit is that you get outdoors and stay relatively fit. But running is so much more than that. On my lunchtime run today, for example, I came up with six good ideas that I can immediately implement to save money, improve my fitness and get better at business. Not bad for twenty minutes’ work.
UPDATE 6 January 2021: In 2020, I’m pleased to report that my diary-writing habit bounced back, despite, well, everything. I wrote a total of 319,893 words over 335 days, missing only 8.5 percent of that momentous 366-day leap year.