Tag: Habits

Double Loop Learning: Download New Skills and Information into Your Brain

We’re taught single loop learning from the time we are in grade school, but there’s a better way. Double loop learning is the quickest and most efficient way to learn anything that you want to “stick.”

***

So, you’ve done the work necessary to have an opinion, learned the mental models, and considered how you make decisions. But how do you now implement these concepts and figure out which ones work best in your situation? How do you know what’s effective and what’s not? One solution to this dilemma is double loop learning.

We can think of double loop learning as learning based on Bayesian updating — the modification of goals, rules, or ideas in response to new evidence and experience. It might sound like another piece of corporate jargon, but double loop learning cultivates creativity and innovation for both organizations and individuals.

“Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.”

— Hunter S. Thompson

Single Loop Learning

The first time we aim for a goal, follow a rule, or make a decision, we are engaging in single loop learning. This is where many people get stuck and keep making the same mistakes. If we question our approaches and make honest self-assessments, we shift into double loop learning. It’s similar to the Orient stage in John Boyd’s OODA loop. In this stage, we assess our biases, question our mental models, and look for areas where we can improve. We collect data, seek feedback, and gauge our performance. In short, we can’t learn from experience without reflection. Only reflection allows us to distill the experience into something we can learn from.

In Teaching Smart People How to Learn, business theorist Chris Argyris compares single loop learning to a typical thermostat. It operates in a homeostatic loop, always seeking to return the room to the temperature at which the thermostat is set. A thermostat might keep the temperature steady, but it doesn’t learn. By contrast, double loop learning would entail the thermostat’s becoming more efficient over time. Is the room at the optimum temperature? What’s the humidity like today and would a lower temperature be more comfortable? The thermostat would then test each idea and repeat the process. (Sounds a lot like Nest.)

Double Loop Learning

Double loop learning is part of action science — the study of how we act in difficult situations. Individuals and organizations need to learn if they want to succeed (or even survive). But few of us pay much attention to exactly how we learn and how we can optimize the process.

Even smart, well-educated people can struggle to learn from experience. We all know someone who’s been at the office for 20 years and claims to have 20 years of experience, but they really have one year repeated 20 times.

Not learning can actually make you worse off. The world is dynamic and always changing. If you’re standing still, then you won’t adapt. Forget moving ahead; you have to get better just to stay in the same relative spot, and not getting better means you’re falling behind.

Many of us are so focused on solving problems as they arise that we don’t take the time to reflect on them after we’ve dealt with them, and this omission dramatically limits our ability to learn from the experiences. Of course, we want to reflect, but we’re busy and we have more problems to solve — not to mention that reflecting on our idiocy is painful and we’re predisposed to avoid pain and protect our egos.

Reflection, however, is an example of an approach I call first-order negative, second-order positive. It’s got very visible short-term costs — it takes time and honest self-assessment about our shortcomings — but pays off in spades in the future. The problem is that the future is not visible today, so slowing down today to go faster at some future point seems like a bad idea to many. Plus with the payoff being so far in the future, it’s hard to connect to the reflection today.

The Learning Dilemma: How Success Becomes an Impediment

Argyris wrote that many skilled people excel at single loop learning. It’s what we learn in academic situations. But if we are accustomed only to success, double loop learning can ignite defensive behavior. Argyris found this to be the reason learning can be so difficult. It’s not because we aren’t competent, but because we resist learning out of a fear of seeming incompetent. Smart people aren’t used to failing, so they struggle to learn from their mistakes and often respond by blaming someone else. As Argyris put it, “their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it the most.”

In the same way, a muscle strengthens at the point of failure, we learn best after dramatic errors.

The problem is that single loop processes can be self-fulfilling. Consider managers who assume their employees are inept. They deal with this by micromanaging and making every decision themselves. Their employees have no opportunity to learn, so they become discouraged. They don’t even try to make their own decisions. This is a self-perpetuating cycle. For double loop learning to happen, the managers would have to let go a little. Allow someone else to make minor decisions. Offer guidance instead of intervention. Leave room for mistakes. In the long run, everyone would benefit. The same applies to teachers who think their students are going to fail an exam. The teachers become condescending and assign simple work. When the exam rolls around, guess what? Many of the students do badly. The teachers think they were right, so the same thing happens the next semester.

Many of the leaders Argyris studied blamed any problems on “unclear goals, insensitive and unfair leaders, and stupid clients” rather than making useful assessments. Complaining might be cathartic, but it doesn’t let us learn. Argyris explained that this defensive reasoning happens even when we want to improve. Single loop learning just happens to be a way of minimizing effort. We would go mad if we had to rethink our response every time someone asked how we are, for example. So everyone develops their own “theory of action—a set of rules that individuals use to design and implement their own behavior as well as to understand the behavior of others.” Most of the time, we don’t even consider our theory of action. It’s only when asked to explain it that the divide between how we act and how we think we act becomes apparent. Identifying the gap between our espoused theory of action and what we are actually doing is the hard part.

The Key to Double Loop Learning: Push to the Point of Failure

The first step Argyris identified is to stop getting defensive. Justification gets us nowhere. Instead, he advocates collecting and analyzing relevant data. What conclusions can we draw from experience? How can we test them? What evidence do we need to prove a new idea is correct?

The next step is to change our mental models. Break apart paradigms. Question where conventions came from. Pivot and make reassessments if necessary.

Problem-solving isn’t a linear process. We can’t make one decision and then sit back and await success.

Argyris found that many professionals are skilled at teaching others, yet find it difficult to recognize the problems they themselves cause (see Galilean Relativity). It’s easy to focus on other people; it’s much harder to look inward and face complex challenges. Doing so brings up guilt, embarrassment, and defensiveness. As John Grey put it, “If there is anything unique about the human animal, it is that it has the ability to grow knowledge at an accelerating rate while being chronically incapable of learning from experience.”

When we repeat a single loop process, it becomes a habit. Each repetition requires less and less effort. We stop questioning or reconsidering it, especially if it does the job (or appears to). While habits are essential in many areas of our lives, they don’t serve us well if we want to keep improving. For that, we need to push the single loop to the point of failure, to strengthen how we act in the double loop. It’s a bit like the Feynman technique — we have to dismantle what we know to see how solid it truly is.

“Fail early and get it all over with. If you learn to deal with failure… you can have a worthwhile career. You learn to breathe again when you embrace failure as a part of life, not as the determining moment of life.”

— Rev. William L. Swig

One example is the typical five-day, 9-to-5 work week. Most organizations stick to it year after year. They don’t reconsider the efficacy of a schedule designed for Industrial Revolution factory workers. This is single loop learning. It’s just the way things are done, but not necessarily the smartest way to do things.

The decisions made early on in an organization have the greatest long-term impact. Changing them in the months, years, or even decades that follow becomes a non-option. How to structure the work week is one such initial decision that becomes invisible. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “The things we see every day are the things we never see at all.” Sure, a 9-to-5 schedule might not be causing any obvious problems. The organization might be perfectly successful. But that doesn’t mean things cannot improve. It’s the equivalent of a child continuing to crawl because it gets them around. Why try walking if crawling does the job? Why look for another option if the current one is working?

A growing number of organizations are realizing that conventional work weeks might not be the most effective way to structure work time. They are using double loop learning to test other structures. Some organizations are trying shorter work days or four-day work weeks or allowing people to set their own schedules. Managers then keep track of how the tested structures affect productivity and profits. Over time, it becomes apparent whether the new schedule is better than the old one.

37Signals is one company using double loop learning to restructure their work week. CEO Jason Fried began experimenting a few years ago. He tried out a four-day, 32-hour work week. He gave employees the whole of June off to explore new ideas. He cut back on meetings and created quiet spaces for focused work. Rather than following conventions, 37Signals became a laboratory looking for ways of improving. Over time, what worked and what didn’t became obvious.

Double loop learning is about data-backed experimentation, not aimless tinkering. If a new idea doesn’t work, it’s time to try something else.

In an op-ed for The New York Times, Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield give the example of David Chang. Double loop learning turned his failing noodle bar into an award-winning empire.

After apprenticing as a cook in Japan, Mr. Chang started his own restaurant. Yet his early efforts were ineffective. He found himself overworked and struggling to make money. He knew his cooking was excellent, so how could he make it profitable? Many people would have quit or continued making irrelevant tweaks until the whole endeavor failed. Instead, Mr. Chang shifted from single to double loop learning. A process of making honest self-assessments began. One of his foundational beliefs was that the restaurant should serve only noodles, but he decided to change the menu to reflect his skills. In time, it paid off; “the crowds came, rave reviews piled up, awards followed and unimaginable opportunities presented themselves.” This is what double loop learning looks like in action: questioning everything and starting from scratch if necessary.

Josh Waitzkin’s approach (as explained in The Art of Learning) is similar. After reaching the heights of competitive chess, Waitzkin turned his focus to martial arts. He began with tai chi chuan. Martial arts and chess are, on the surface, completely different, but Waitzkin used double loop learning for both. He progressed quickly because he was willing to lose matches if doing so meant he could learn. He noticed that other martial arts students had a tendency to repeat their mistakes, letting fruitless habits become ingrained. Like the managers Argyris worked with, students grew defensive when challenged. They wanted to be right, even if it prevented their learning. In contrast, Waitzkin viewed practice as an experiment. Each session was an opportunity to test his beliefs. He mastered several martial arts, earning a black belt in jujitsu and winning a world championship in tai ji tui shou.

Argyris found that organizations learn best when people know how to communicate. (No surprise there.) Leaders need to listen actively and open up exploratory dialogues so that problematic assumptions and conventions can be revealed. Argyris identified some key questions to consider.

  • What is the current theory in use?
  • How does it differ from proposed strategies and goals?
  • What unspoken rules are being followed, and are they detrimental?
  • What could change, and how?
  • Forget the details; what’s the bigger picture?

Meaningful learning doesn’t happen without focused effort. Double loop learning is the key to turning experience into improvements, information into action, and conversations into progress.

Why You Shouldn’t Slog Through Books

While our system for reading 25 pages a day has been adopted by many of our readers and members of the learning community to great success, a couple points have been misinterpreted. Let’s clear them up.

Reading opens windows into other worlds. While most of us don’t have the time to read a whole book in one sitting, we do have the time to read 25 pages a day (here are some ways you can find time to read). Reading the right books, even if it’s a few pages a day, is one of the best ways to ensure that you go to bed a little smarter than you woke up.

Twenty-five pages a day adds up over time. Let’s say that two days out of each month, you probably won’t have time to read. Plus Christmas. That gives you 340 days a year of solid reading time. If you read 25 pages a day for 340 days, that’s 8,500 pages. 8,500. What I have also found is that when I commit to a minimum of 25 pages, I almost always read more. So let’s call the 8,500 pages 10,000. (I only need to extend the daily 25 pages into 30 to get there.)

With 10,000 pages a year, at a general pace of 25/day, what can we get done?

Well, The Power Broker is 1,100 pages. The four LBJ books written by Robert Caro are collectively 3,552 pages. Tolstoy’s two masterpieces — War and Peace, and Anna Karenina — come in at a combined 2,160. Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is six volumes and runs to about 3,660 pages. That’s 10,472 pages.

That means, in about one year, at a modest pace of 25 pages a day, you’d have knocked out 13 masterful works and learned an enormous amount about the history of the world. In one year!

That leaves the following year to read Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1,280), Carl Sandburg’s Six Volumes on Lincoln (2,000?), Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations unabridged (1,200), and Boswell’s Johnson (1,300), with plenty of pages left to read something else.

This is how the great works get read: day by day, 25 pages at a time. No excuses.

We hold to this advice today. But there are two areas that have been misinterpreted over the past year, so let’s clarify them and make sure everyone is set on the right course.

Twenty-Five Pages a Day: Minimum, Not Maximum!

Our friend Ryan Holiday had an interesting retort1 to our piece, saying that while he agreed with it, he found it impractical in his own life.

Farnam Street had a post recently talking about how the way to get through big books is 25 pages a day. I don’t totally disagree with that, I’ve just found that style is nice in theory but less effective in practice. Really, it’s about whether you can go through large blocks of time at this thing, concerted but sustained blocks of effort—almost like a fartlek workout. Because broken up into too many pieces, you’ll miss the whole point of the book, like the proverbial blind man touching an elephant. Those who conquer long books know that it’s not a matter of reading some pages before you fall asleep but rather, canceling your plans for the night and staying in to read instead.

I suspect that our disagreement is one of degree and perhaps misinterpretation. We totally agree on the point of reading in long, sustained blocks. That’s exactly how we read ourselves!

Create healthy reading habits. The point of assigning yourself a certain amount of reading every day is to create a deeply held habit. The 25-pages-a-day thing is a habit-former! For those of us who already have a strong reading habit, it’s not altogether necessary. I love reading, so I no longer need to force myself to read. But many people dream of it rather than doing it, and they especially dream of a day when they will read for hours at a time with great frequency, as Ryan does and as we do.

Easy does not equate to good. The problem is, when they start tasting the broccoli, they realize how tough that commitment can be. They think, “If I can’t read for hours on end, why bother starting?” So instead of doing their daily 25 pages, they don’t read anything! The books sit on the shelves, collecting dust. We know a lot of people like this.

Those folks need to commit to a daily routine — to understand what a small commitment compounds to over time. And, like us, most of these people will naturally read far more than 25 pages. They will achieve the dream and plow through a book they really love in a few sittings rather than with a leisurely 25 pages per day. But creating the habit is where it starts.

Eventually, you’ll love it so much that you’ll force yourself to read less at times so you can get other things done.

Don’t Slog Through Books You Don’t Like

The other misconception comes from the meaty books we referred to: long ones like The Power Broker, War and Peace, and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. Some readers took that to mean that they should attempt these huge tomes out of pure masochism and use the 25-page daily mark to plow through boredom.

Nothing could be further from the truth! (Our bad.)

Too many English lit professors have promoted the idea that “the classics” contain some sort of unique unobtanium of wisdom. Sorry, but that’s bullshit.

If you’ve gone through our course on the Art of Reading, you’ll realize that there are many better strategies than plowing ahead. You must pursue your curiosities! This is by far the most important principle of good reading.

The truth is that when you’re super bored, your interest and understanding come to a screeching halt. There are many, many topics that I find interesting now which I found dull at some point in my life. Five years ago, there was no possible way I would have made it through The Power Broker, even if I tried to force myself. And it would have been a mistake to try.

Here’s another unspoken truth: Any central lesson you can take away from War and Peace can also be learned in other ways if that book doesn’t really interest you. The same goes for 99% of the wisdom out there — it’s available in many places. Unfortunately, too many English lit professors have promoted the idea that “the classics” contain some sort of unique unobtanium of wisdom. Sorry, but that’s bullshit.

The better idea is to read what seems awesome and interesting to you now and to let your curiosities grow organically. A lifelong interest in truth, reality, and knowledge will lead you down so many paths, you should never need to force yourself to read anything unless there is a very, very specific reason. (Perhaps to learn a specific skill for a job.)

Not only is this approach way more fun, but it works really, really well. It keeps you reading. It keeps you interested. And in the words of Nassim Taleb, “Curiosity is antifragile, like an addiction; magnified by attempts to satisfy it.”

Thus, paradoxically, as you read more books, your pile of unread books will get larger, not smaller. That’s because your curiosity will grow with every great read.

This is the path of the lifelong learner. This is how you get the world to do most of the heavy lifting for you.

Footnotes
  • 1

    Thought Catalog: https://thoughtcatalog.com/ryan-holiday/2016/01/did-you-actually-read-that-the-joy-of-reading-really-really-long-books/

The Difference Between Amateurs and Professionals

Why is it that some people seem to be hugely successful and do so much, while the vast majority of us struggle to tread water?

The answer is complicated and likely multifaceted.

One aspect is mindset—specifically, the difference between amateurs and professionals.

Most of us are just amateurs.

What’s the difference? Actually, there are many differences:

  • Amateurs stop when they achieve something. Professionals understand that the initial achievement is just the beginning.
  • Amateurs have a goal. Professionals have a process.
  • Amateurs think they are good at everything. Professionals understand their circles of competence.
  • Amateurs see feedback and coaching as someone criticizing them as a person. Professionals know they have weak spots and seek out thoughtful criticism.
  • Amateurs value isolated performance. Think about the receiver who catches the ball once on a difficult throw. Professionals value consistency. Can I catch the ball in the same situation 9 times out of 10?
  • Amateurs give up at the first sign of trouble and assume they’re failures. Professionals see failure as part of the path to growth and mastery.
  • Amateurs don’t have any idea what improves the odds of achieving good outcomes. Professionals do.
  • Amateurs show up to practice to have fun. Professionals realize that what happens in practice happens in games.
  • Amateurs focus on identifying their weaknesses and improving them. Professionals focus on their strengths and on finding people who are strong where they are weak.
  • Amateurs think knowledge is power. Professionals pass on wisdom and advice.
  • Amateurs focus on being right. Professionals focus on getting the best outcome.
  • Amateurs focus on first-level thinking. Professionals focus on second-order thinking.
  • Amateurs think good outcomes are the result of their brilliance. Professionals understand when good outcomes are the result of luck.
  • Amateurs focus on the short term. Professionals focus on the long term.
  • Amateurs focus on tearing other people down. Professionals focus on making everyone better.
  • Amateurs make decisions in committees so there is no one person responsible if things go wrong. Professionals make decisions as individuals and accept responsibility.
  • Amateurs blame others. Professionals accept responsibility.
  • Amateurs show up inconsistently. Professionals show up every day.
  • Amateurs go faster. Professionals go further.
  • Amateurs go with the first idea that comes into their head. Professionals realize the first idea is rarely the best idea.
  • Amateurs think in ways that can’t be invalidated. Professionals don’t.
  • Amateurs think in absolutes. Professionals think in probabilities.
  • Amateurs think the probability of them having the best idea is high. Professionals know the probability of that is low.
  • Amateurs think reality is what they want to see. Professionals know reality is what’s true.
  • Amateurs think disagreements are threats. Professionals see them as an opportunity to learn.

There are a host of other differences, but they can effectively be boiled down to two things: fear and reality.

Amateurs believe that the world should work the way they want it to. Professionals realize that they have to work with the world as they find it. Amateurs are scared — scared to be vulnerable and honest with themselves. Professionals feel like they are capable of handling almost anything.

Luck aside, which approach do you think is going to yield better results?

Food for Thought:

  • In what circumstances do you find yourself behaving like an amateur instead of as a professional?
  • What’s holding you back? Are you hanging around people who are amateurs when you should be hanging around professionals?

Comment on Facebook | Discuss on Twitter

Footnotes
  • 1

    Ideas in this article from Ryan Holiday, Ramit Sethi, Seth Godin and others.

Habits vs. Goals: A Look at the Benefits of a Systematic Approach to Life

“First forget inspiration.
Habit is more dependable.
Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not.
Habit is persistence in practice.”

— Octavia Butler

***

Nothing will change your future trajectory like habits.

We all have goals, big or small, things we want to achieve within a certain time frame. Some people want to make a million dollars by the time they turn 30. Some people want to lose 20 pounds before summer. Some people want to write a book in the next six months. When we begin to chase an intangible or vague concept (success, wealth, health, happiness), making a tangible goal is often the first step.

Habits are processes operating in the background that power our lives. Good habits help us reach our goals. Bad ones hinder us. Either way, habits powerfully influence our automatic behavior.

The difference between habits and goals is not semantic. Each requires different forms of action. For example:

  • We want to learn a new language. We could decide we want to be fluent in six months (goal), or we could commit to 30 minutes of practice each day (habit).
  • We want to read more books. We could set the goal to read 50 books by the end of the year, or we could decide to always carry a book with us (habit).
  • We want to spend more time with our families. We could plan to spend seven hours a week with them (goal), or we could choose to eat dinner with them each night (habit).

The Problems With Goals

When we want to change an aspect of our lives, setting a goal is often the logical first step. Despite being touted by many a self-help guru, this approach has some problematic facets.

Goals have an endpoint. This is why many people revert to their previous state after achieving a certain goal. People run marathons, then stop exercising altogether afterward. Or they make a certain amount of money, then fall into debt soon after. Others reach a goal weight, only to spoil their progress by overeating to celebrate.

Goals rely on factors which we do not always have control over. It’s an unavoidable fact that reaching a goal is not always possible, regardless of effort. An injury might derail a fitness goal. An unexpected expense might sabotage a financial goal. A family tragedy might impede a creative-output goal. When we set a goal, we are attempting to transform what is usually a heuristic process into an algorithmic one.

Goals rely on willpower and self-discipline. As Charles Duhigg wrote in The Power of Habit:

Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.

Keeping a goal in mind and using it to direct our actions requires constant willpower. During times when other parts of our lives deplete our supply of willpower, it can be easy to forget our goals. For example, the goal of saving money requires self-discipline each time we make a purchase. Meanwhile, the habit of putting $50 in a savings account every week requires little effort. Habits, not goals, make otherwise difficult things easy.

Goals can make us complacent or reckless. Studies have shown that people’s brains can confuse goal setting with achievement. This effect is more pronounced when people inform others of their goals. Furthermore, unrealistic goals can lead to dangerous or unethical behavior.

The Benefits of Habits

“Habit is the intersection of knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do), and desire (want to do).”
— Stephen Covey

***

Once formed, habits operate automatically. Habits take otherwise difficult tasks—like saving money—and make them easy.

The purpose of a well-crafted set of habits is to ensure that we reach our goals with incremental steps. The benefits of a systematic approach to achievement include the following:

Habits can mean we overshoot our goals. Let’s say a person’s goal is to write a novel. They decide to write 200 words a day, so it should take 250 days. Writing 200 words takes little effort, and even on the busiest, most stressful days, the person gets it done. However, on some days, that small step leads to their writing 1000 or more words. As a result, they finish the book in much less time. Yet setting “write a book in four months” as a goal would have been intimidating.

Habits are easy to complete. As Duhigg wrote,

Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”

Once we develop a habit, our brains actually change to make the behavior easier to complete. After about 30 days of practice, enacting a habit becomes easier than not doing so.

Habits are for life. Our lives are structured around habits, many of them barely noticeable. According to Duhigg’s research, habits make up 40% of our waking hours. These often minuscule actions add up to make us who we are. William James (a man who knew the problems caused by bad habits) summarized their importance as such:

All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits — practical, emotional, and intellectual — systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.

Once a habit becomes ingrained, it can last for life (unless broken for some reason).

Habits can compound. Stephen Covey paraphrased Gandhi when he explained:

Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.

In other words, building a single habit can have a wider impact on our lives. Duhigg calls these keystone habits. These are behaviors that cause people to change related areas of their lives. For example, people who start exercising daily may end up eating better and drinking less. Likewise, those who quit a bad habit may end up replacing it with a positive alternative. (Naval and I talked about habit replacement a lot on this podcast episode.)

Habits can be as small as necessary. A common piece of advice for those seeking to build a habit is to start small. Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg recommends “tiny habits,” such as flossing one tooth. Once these become ingrained, the degree of complexity can be increased. If you want to read more, you can start with 25 pages a day. After this becomes part of your routine, you can increase the page count to reach your goal.

Why a Systematic Approach Works

“First we make our habits, then our habits make us.”
— Charles C. Nobel

***

By switching our focus from achieving specific goals to creating positive long-term habits, we can make continuous improvement a way of life. This is evident from the documented habits of many successful people.

Warren Buffett reads all day to build the knowledge necessary for his investments.

Stephen King writes 1000 words a day, 365 days a year (a habit he describes as “a sort of creative sleep”). Athlete Eliud Kipchoge makes notes after each training session to establish areas which can be improved. These habits, repeated hundreds of times over years, are not incidental. With consistency, the benefits of these non-negotiable actions compound and lead to extraordinary achievements.

While goals rely on extrinsic motivation, habits are automatic. They literally rewire our brains.

When seeking to attain something in our lives, we would do well to invest our time in forming positive habits, rather than concentrating on a specific goal.

For further reading on this topic, look at Drive: The Surprising Secret of What Motivates Us, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, and The Power of Habit.

Making a Change: One Small Step

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step.”
— Lao Tzu

***

Change is hard. But what if we could make it a little easier? As Lao Tzu so eloquently puts it, maybe we just need to focus on that first step.

This is the time of year for New Year’s resolutions. It shouldn’t surprise you that we tend to be pretty terrible at following through on them.

The average American makes the same resolution ten years in a row without success. Within four months, 25 percent of resolutions are abandoned. And those who succeed in keeping their resolutions usually do so only after five or six annual broken promises.

With a track record like that, it definitely seems like time to look at the problem differently. There is an interesting short book by Robert Maurer called, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way; in it, he uses his experiences as a clinical psychologist using something called Kaizen to help people make changes in their lives.

Kaizen has two definitions:

  • Using very smalls steps to improve a habit, a process, or product.
  • Using very small moments to inspire new products and inventions.

For this discussion let’s focus on using it to help remove roadblocks to the behavior we are seeking, or to add roadblocks to behavior we are trying to discourage. As Maurer puts it, “using small steps to accomplish large goals.”

Thinking About Change

First, let’s take a look at change. Meaningful change is pretty hard. Our lives are homeostatic systems — they want to come back in alignment with what is comfortable.

We also live in a culture that tends to feel that bigger is better. We think that big steps or big dramatic changes will produce big results. And while this may be true a small percentage of the time, or may seem logical, it’s very rare and difficult to implement. Smaller steps are more doable both for our mind and for our body.

Let’s use the example of exercise for health. Many people want to live healthier lives and there is plenty of evidence that movement helps us to achieve those goals. However, we are often pushed to believe that only a certain type or certain level of exercise will get us where we need to be. We decide to make a drastic change to get a drastic outcome.

The issue is it’s very hard to go from no exercise to an hour at the gym everyday. The gym is expensive, you have to fit it into your schedule (travel and time there) and you have to stay motivated to go regularly to get those results you want.

The Kaizen way would be to pick one small step. It should be something relatively easy, something that takes little time and effort. For example, if you drive a car to work, purposely park as far away from the door as possible. If you bus, get off one stop earlier. But, initially, choose only one thing and do that one thing until it becomes habitual. Maurer suggests thirty days.

It almost seems too simple; so simple that you might think that you are effecting little to no change. But these changes are additive. Imagine if every month for a year you added a healthy habit to your life.

Those changes may come about slowly but they can end up being quite dramatic. In combination, they can be exponential. A total change.

The quick extreme change can actually cripple people into inaction. We reason, why bother if I can’t succeed 100%?

Too often, you meet with success in the short term, only to find yourself falling back into your old ways when your initial burst of enthusiasm fades away. Radical change is like charging up a steep hill – you may run out of wind before you reach the crest, or the thought of all the work ahead makes you give up no sooner than you’ve begun.

There is an alternative… another path altogether, one that winds so gently up the hill that you hardly notice the climb. It is pleasant to negotiate and soft to tread. And all it requires is that you place one foot in front of the other.

So let’s make our way back to New Year’s. These types of resolutions don’t work because we command ourselves to implement them in their entirety starting the very next day. It’s almost like setting yourself up for failure on purpose. So, instead of looking at the resolutions the traditional way, let’s look at some of them Kaizen style.

In the book Maurer walks us through some of the common resolutions he’s seen and the small steps that his clients have used with success in the past. Just don’t forget that any change requires eating the broccoli.

Small Steps for starting to exercise:

  1. If you can’t bring yourself to get off the couch, purchase a hand grip to squeeze while watching television (or squeeze old tennis balls). This will burn a few calories and get you accustomed to the idea of moving your body again.
  2. When you’re ready to get moving, walk around the block once a day, or take one flight of stairs instead of the elevator.
  3. Pass one additional house per day, or repeat one extra step on the staircase until you find the habit growing solid.
  4. To further increase your appetite for exercise, think about the activity you would most like to engage in – swimming? Skiing? Tennis? Find an attractive picture of that activity and place it on the refrigerator, on top of the television, or in the corner of a mirror.

Small Steps for saving money:

  1. Set yourself the goal of saving just one dollar per day. One way to do this is to modify one daily purchase. Perhaps you can downgrade from a large, relatively expensive latte to a small, plain coffee. Maybe you can read a newspaper for free online instead of buying one at the newsstand. Put each saved dollar away.
  2. Another tactic for saving a dollar a day is to share a daily indulgence with a friend. Buy one large coffee and pour it into two smaller mugs. Buy one newspaper and swap sections.
  3. If you save one dollar each day, at the end of the year you’ll have $365. Start a list of things you’d like to do with that extra money and add one idea each day. You’ll learn to think about far-off, more sizeable financial goals rather than immediate cheaper pleasures.

Small Steps for asking for a raise:

  1. Start a list of reasons you deserve more money for your work. Every day, add one item to the list.
  2. Spend one minute a day practicing your request to your boss out loud.
  3. Increase this time until you feel ready to make your request in person.
  4. Before you actually ask for the raise, imagine that the boss responds poorly – but that you walk out the door feeling successful anyway, feeling proud of our effort. (This step – really a form of mind sculpture – helps you manage any lingering fears.)

Small Steps for using time more productively:

  1. Make a list of activities that take up your time but are not useful or stimulating to you. Watching television, browsing through stores, and reading things you don’t find pleasant or productive are frequent sources of poorly used time.
  2. Make a list of activities you would like to try that you feel would be more productive than your current ones. Each day, add one item to the list.
  3. Once you have identified more-productive activities that you’d like to try, go ahead and give them a whirl – but in a very limited, nonthreatening manner. If you want to keep a journal, do so – but promise yourself to write just three sentences per day. If you’d like to take a yoga class, you might begin by just sitting in the studio’s lobby and watching students pass in and out. Soon, you will find yourself participating more fully in your activity. And you’ll hardly notice that you’re spending less time in front of the television.
  4. Each day, write down the name of one person who you feel is living a productive life. Then write down one thing that person is doing differently from you.
    (If you want to me more productive might we suggest – Productivity That Gets Results)

You will notice that some of these steps themselves are additive in nature. It’s helpful to look at the behavior you are trying to change and break it out into bite sized pieces. This will serve two purposes: it will give you more insight into the behavior itself; and it will break out the problem into sensible small steps for you to tackle.

One Small Step Can Change Your Life is a small book filled with big ideas. Much has been written about Kaizen and how it has revolutionized business practices, but it’s also interesting to look at this idea from a more personal perspective.

But first, let’s take just one small step. Good luck with your New Year’s resolutions.

At Some Point, You Have to Eat The Broccoli

It’s a wonderful idea to try to find a set of systems and principles that “work better” for big swaths of your life. Better habits, better mental tendencies, better methods of inquiry, and so on. We’re strong advocates of this approach, believing that good thinking and good decision making can be learned the same as a good golf swing can: Through practice and instruction.

So, read the below with this caveat in mind: Constant learning and self-improvement can and must be done for great life results.

Now, with that out of the way.

Progress Requires Effort

The problem with the search for self-improvement methods, including the kind of multidisciplinary thinking we espouse, is that many, perhaps most of them, are a snare and a delusion for most people. And there’s a simple reason why: They won’t actually do it.

Think about it. Isn’t that the most common result? That you don’t do it? For example, we heard from many people after we wrote a piece late last year on Reading 25 Pages a Day, a little practice that we think would benefit almost anyone in creating a very desirable reading habit.

What we suspect, though, is that even of the subset of people who felt so strongly about the idea that they contacted us, only a minority of them followed through and maintained to the habit to this day, ten months later.

The Failure to Implement Habits

Why is that? A huge part of it is Homeostasis: The basic self-regulating feedback loops that keep us repeating the same habits over and over. Predictable forces that keep us from changing ourselves, just as some forces keep us from changing organizations. (Or any self-regulating system.)

The failure to follow new systems and habits (mental or physical) follows this basic formula:

  1. A system is proposed which makes the adherent think that they can live life a healthy life “without eating any broccoli.” (Whether intended by the author or not.) You see this over and over: Money-making schemes, exercise-habit formation routines, 4-hour workweek promises, new cultural principles for businesses, and so on. Promises that lead people to think “healthy eating with no broccoli,” so to speak. An easy fix.
  2. Potential adherent to the “broccoli-free” system buys into the paradigm, and starts giving it a try.
  3. Potential adherent realizes very quickly that either (A) The broccoli must, indeed, be eaten, or (B) The system does not work.

Do the Work

Now, with regards to the 25-pages a day “system” we outlined, we were careful not to make a “no broccoli” promise: All we said was that reading 25 pages per day was a habit that almost anyone could form and that it would lead them far. But you still have to do all the reading. You have to actually do the thing. That’s the part where everyone falls away.

We suspect that some people thought it would be easy to read 25 pages per day. That the pages would essentially “read themselves”, or that the time to do so would spontaneously free up, just because they starting wanting it. This is never, ever the case. At some point, to be healthy, you do need to suck it up and eat some broccoli! And for many days in a row. Or, more to the point: The “failure point” with any new system; any method of improvement; any proposed solution to a life problem or an organization problem, is when the homeostatic regulation kicks in, when we realize some part of it will be hard, new, or unnatural.

Even a really well-designed system can only cut up the broccoli into little pieces and sneak it into your mac-and-cheese. A popular example would be a fitness system whereby you do one pushup a day, then two pushups on the second day, then three the third day, and so on. It makes the habit digestible at first, as you get used to it. This is plenty smart.

But eventually, if you’re going to hang on to that habit, you’ll have to do a whole lot of pushups every day! You can’t just go back to plain mac-and-cheese, no broccoli. When the newness of the “one day at a time” system wears off, you’ll be left with a heaping portion of broccoli. Will you continue eating it?

There is no free lunch. When you’re evaluating a proposed improvement to your life or to your organization, you must figure out when and where the broccoli will get eaten, and understand that you will have to sacrifice something (even if it’s just comfort) to get what you want. And if anyone ever promises you “no broccoli,” it’s a sham.

The willingness to pay the price is what separates people into two groups. On one hand, you have the people who want to want something and won’t do anything hard to get it. These people are passive — life is always happening to them … stuff is never perfect … there is always something getting in the way. Soon enough they’ll trade today’s want for a new one, momentarily distracting themselves from their lack of progress. But nothing will ever change for these people. They’ll never put in the work needed to make progress because they’re not willing to pay the price or they’re scared of failing. On the other hand, the second group is willing to do the work. They don’t make excuses. They don’t wait for perfection. They put their head down and get better every day. While they sometimes come up short, they get up and try again.

Which group do you think is more likely to succeed? Which group do you think is happier? Which group do you want to be a part of?

Remember that anything really worth doing is probably hard work, and will absolutely require you to do things you don’t currently do, which will feel uncomfortable for a while. This is a “hard truth” we must all face. If it was easy, everyone would already be doing it. 

***

Let’s take the example of learning how to give better feedback. What could be a more useful skill? But actually doing so, actually following through with the idea, is not at all easy. You have to overcome your natural impulse to criticize. You have to get over your natural ego. You have to be very careful to watch your words, trying to decipher what will be heard when you deliver feedback. All of these are hard things to do, all of them unnatural. All will require some re-doubling to accomplish.

Thus, most people won’t actually do it. This an Iron Rule of life: Biological systems tend towards what is comfortable. (Yes, human beings are “biological systems”.)

But this Iron Rule is a problem and an opportunity wrapped together. As the saying goes, “If you do what everyone else does, you’ll get what everyone else gets.” If you can recognize that all things worth doing are hard at first, and that there is always some broccoli to be eaten, you are part of the way toward true advantageous differentiation. The rest is self-discipline.

We “go back” on our habits when they aren’t truly formed yet. We think we’re there, but we’re really not — we’ve just been fooled by our sensory apparatus.

And the real and comforting truth is that you might really start liking, and even get used to eating, broccoli. Eating potato chips and candy will eventually feel like the uncomfortable and unnatural thing.

And that’s when you know you’ve really got a great new discipline: Going back would feel like cutting off your hands.

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