What to say when you talk to yourself

What to say when you talk to yourself is the most effective book on personal growth that I’ve read in the last year.

The premise of the book is that our behavior, feelings, attitudes and beliefs are all a direct product of our mental programming. And our mind’s programs get recorded not based on whether they are true or false but simply by how many times and with how much attention we listen or “experience” the programming which, most of the time, happens as we talk to ourselves in our heads. So if you want to change certain behaviors or habits in your life the best thing you can do is focus on changing that self talk. I have been doing exactly that for more than a month now and I’m seeing progress with habits and behaviors that I hadn’t been able to change through other means so I’m spreading the idea.

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Here are some more notes I found interesting:

Most of our programming has made it into our brains unconsciously: it came through our parents and family, friends, tv and our environment in general. If you live in a poisonous environment and you’re not careful it’s likely that you have a poisonous programming.

Our brain is biologically designed to take in whatever programming we give it. It doesn’t care if it’s false and self-destructive. Once programmed, our minds will do their best to follow those instructions or make them reality (“fake it till you make it”).

Besides this external programming we also have our own mental self-talk: the stuff that we repeat to ourselves all the time. We are usually unaware of it and if the self talk is negative (“I’m so slow”, “I’m so clumsy”, “I’m an idiot”) you are not doing yourself a favor.

Your programming is likely to be extending to others because what you tell yourself all the time is more likely to come out of your mouth.

Ok, so you’re convinced you want to change your mental programming, how do you do that?

Most self help techniques fail because they don’t take into account two things:

  • Your self-talk is like muscle memory, you need to repeat yourself your new programming daily if you want to overwrite the old one. It this doesn’t become part of your daily routine and you don’t repeat it for at least a month you won’t see results.
  • When you want to change your habits you are not just competing for willpower against your old programming, you are also competing against the demands of daily life (work, kids, commute, etc). This means that any efforts to change yourself that aren’t simple are less likely to work because we physiologically have less energy to counteract the old, bad programming. Ideas must be simple, easy to use and they must work when you use them.

Five ways of reprograming yourself via self-talk:

  • silent: listen to your mental chit chat and notice what you tell yourself when you tell yourself something negative.
  • self-talk when you talk to others. Same as the previous one but take note when you talk to others, eg: “I’m so clumsy”, “I hate my job” and, if you can, stop saying them.
  • talk to yourself out-loud: it’s more effective than the previous two methods because it involves more senses and that means more neural connections and therefore stronger memories.
  • write positive self-talk (eg: in a diary): this isn’t for everybody but if you try it and it works for you keep doing it. Writing requires even more attention than talking which means stronger “recording”.
  • listen to self talk: very low friction method. Record your own affirmations or hunt for some that resonate for you on the internet and listen to them in any of the many 2 or 3 minute moments during the way that we generally don’t do anything.

Because of the way the brain works it does not matter that you tell things to yourself about yourself that are not true now. By repeating them constantly your brain will simply assume that they are truths and it will try to, within the physical world limits, make them reality. There is a difference between “I can fly” and “I’m a calm person, nothing stresses me”.

I suggest pairing this with kaizen.

Tactical notes: I started with 3 or 4 affirmations, each 2 or 3 minutes long but it was too complicated. Now I have 1 affirmation that takes me 5min to say out-loud and that I repeat fully 2 or 3 times a day (via phone reminders).

One Small Step Can Change Your Life

#kaizen #self-improvement

This is one of the two most valuable books that I’ve read in the last year about self improvement. In recent weeks I’ve put it into practice multiple times and it’s helping me get over bad habits that I haven’t been able to make a dent before. Recommended to anyone frustrated with repeated failed attempts at getting rid of bad habits.

There are two basic approaches to changing things: big steps (innovation) and small steps (kaizen). The main idea behind One Small Step Can Change Your Life by Robert Maurer is that the kaizen way is, in most cases, more effective than innovation. Why? When we try radical changes like completely revamping our diet or trying to keep a life-long habit like smoking, we are pushing ourselves way outside of our comfort zone. At the beginning the passion to change may be strong enough to start but when the passion effect wears of what’s left is basically fear. When we feel fear our amygdala, one of the most primitive parts of our brain which pushes us to fight or flight, wakes up and blocks access access to the only tool we have to override our habits, the cerebral cortex. In other words, when you try a change that is too big our reptilian programming kicks in and prevents us from overriding the old habit that we want to change.

The rest of the book explores how to apply kaizen at various levels. Here are some of the ideas that resonated with me:

Adults say they feel stressed instead of scared because there is this belief that once you’re an adult you’re not supposed to feel fear.

Questions focus our brain exceedingly and that makes small, non-threatening questions perfect for creating change, eg: “What is one small step that I can make today towards reaching my goal?”. When you ask big questions like “How could I revolutionize my industry?” you are putting the mind in a scary position which, again, will wake up the amygdala.

The brain cannot tell apart what’s real from what’s imagined. That makes visualizing a great technique for creating change because we can do it any time and for free. This is specially useful when practicing is impossible or too dangerous (eg: talking in public, reacting to your boss’s tantrums, etc).

We are culturally conditioned to expect change to happen instantaneously, to require steely discipline and to not be pleasurable but that’s just wrong: research shows that that’s wrong and that Kaizen works (and not just for the Japanese), we know we are biologically programmed against change and we have limited time and energy that we need to spend in other areas.

Small changes are, in many cases, all you need (Pareto Principle).

Small rewards work better than large rewards because large rewards tend to shift people’s motivations from intrinsic (doing something good because you think it’s the right thing) to extrinsic (doing something because someone else will give you a lot of money if you do it).

The power of incentives

It’s imperative that we think very literally about the incentive systems we create.

Farnamstreet illustrates this point with three examples where incentives went horribly wrong:

The British wanted to get rid of cobras in Delhi so they started paying people for every dead cobra brought in. Result: people started breeding cobras.

Belgian soldiers in Congo were told to bring severed hands as proof that they were using bullets to kill those who didn’t meet certain rubber production quotas. The king’s concern was soldiers wasting bullets by shooting game or missing their human targets. Result: soldiers started cutting off the hands of living people to make up for the cartridges they used or for the quotas that were impossible to meet.

A socially conscious company tried to help people in Ghana by paying a premium on shea nuts in order to help them. Result: people increased shea nut production four times resulting in an excess supply that had no use and which ultimately drove the prices down.

If you are in a position where you can design a system that other people will use make sure you think through the incentives it will create.

Reading on digital devices good for details, bad for abstract thinking

#humancomputerinteraction #reading

According to a recent series of studies (telegraph.co.uk’s article) on 21 year old university students reading on iPads helps you see the trees but not the forest whereas reading on paper does the opposite, it helps you see the forest instead of the trees.

The researchers’ hypothesis is that digital devices come with a lot of distractions like games, social network apps and notifications and their continuous use primes the brain for distractions instead of deep thinking. With a piece of paper there are no distractions.

The researchers describe situations where this triggered low-level thinking is beneficial like solving problems that require attention to detail and risk analysis, but the paper is on the area of Computer Human Interaction so they have an incentive to find a positive side to the story. The conclusion I take is: minimize number of apps and disable notifications on any devices where you want to read intelligently.

How to let go of perfectionism

Do you have any pending project or task that you really want to do but that you haven’t started yet because the conditions are not ideal? In Managing your Day-To-Day Elizabeth Saunders suggests the following mindsets to overcome perfectionism when it’s blocking us from doing those highly desired projects.

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On starting

I know there will never be an ideal time to begin so I set aside time to get started on one part of the process. When I get to that time, regardless of whether I feel like doing the work or whether it seems like the most urgent priority at the moment, I get started on what I can do now […]. I understand that the first stage of working on the piece is messy.

On making progress

I define the meaningful end deliverables and then start to clarify the intermediate steps to create them. I look at how much time I have between now and my projected end date. […] Then I allocate my time budget to the incremental steps weighted by […] the importance of that element to the overall success of the project.
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Then, as I move through the process, I push myself to keep pace with the goals I have set, producing good enough work within the time I have to spend and giving myself permission to go back if I still have additional hours at the end.

On finishing

I define “finished as having at least met the minimum requirements and as knowing I have done the best I could given the time and resources allocated to the project. Saying something is complete doesn’t mean that it can’t be improved upon or elaborated on in the future.

On feedback

I appreciate feedback because it helps me to test and refine my work. […] I can choose how to respond to it. If I never open myself up to others’ insights, I might miss out on something really wonderful.

As Elizabeth writes aiming for less than the sky will allows us to produce more and higher quality work because we funnel all the energy that earlier was consumed by anger and frustration to something more productive.

Cognitive biases

Cognitive biases are known shortcuts that our brains take when we make decisions or form opinions. They are tempting because they allow us to make quick decisions with an aura of intuition or gut feeling around them that, we believe, gives them validity. Most of the time, though, the attractive low upfront cost is not worth the long term high interest rate we will have to pay. Making decisions while ignoring these biases is like furnishing your house with cheap and low quality items hoping to save money. You will be so busy later on “paying” the interest of your bad decisions that you won’t have time to do anything else.

We all come equipped with these dubious features and they affect us in all areas of life. They affect us when we are deciding what to eat, what to do with our savings, which school to send our kids to, what to do during weekends, who to share our lives with, etc. An effective way to reduce or even eliminate their negative impact is to be aware of them and to question what you are telling yourself while making important decisions. For best results I suggest combining this awareness with habit changes and slowly compile your own collection of cognitive biases.

Here are some of the most common cognitive biases:

Confirmation bias

It’s the tendency to seek information or opinions that match our beliefs and disregard opinions against. For example if you believe in the existence of aliens you will tend to seek evidence in favor of your point of view and discredit evidence against their existence.

It’s irrational because you have no warranties that your opinion is right or sound. A rational reaction would be to be open and understand opposing points of view better than your adversaries. You should actually look forward to find evidence and opinioins against your points of view because either your opinion is wrong and you realize it or your opinion is right and you become more confident about it.

Social proof

The tendency to believe that if many people approve of something it must be good. For example when your mom asked you if you would jump from a bridge if all your friends did and you replied “yes” you were relying on social proof.

It’s irrational because you have no reasons to believe that the group is behaving rationally. A rational reaction would be to stop to think about why you are doing things and to make sure that you don’t do something you are not fully convinced about.

Moral licensing

The tendency to believe that doing something good entitles us to do something bad. Eg: I am saving this company one million dollars a year so it’s ok if I steal one hundred dollars.

It’s irrational because behaving according to our values and goals is just evidence of our commitment, going against our values (stealing) because we have followed our values (saving the company money) makes no sense. A doctor that saves ten lives a day is not entitled to kill someone at night just for fun.

Halo effect

The tendency to ignore the badness in something because it has a tiny fraction of goodness. For example if we see chocolate cookies and the packaging says they have five percent fibre we tend ignore the fact that they are chocolate cookies and we believe we are doing ourselves a favor because they have fibre.

It’s irrational because of pure arithmetics: 5% good minus 95% is still 90% bad. A rational reaction would be to trust the hard cold math that holds skyscrapers and bridges together.

Sunken cost fallacy

The tendency to not let go of things that are costing us more than we get back because of the monetary, time or emotional investment we have put on them. For example some people tend to stick with their significant others when they are unhappy because they feel that with the amount of time and effort invested in the relationship it has to survive no matter what.

It’s irrational because the longer we stay in that situation the greater our losses. A rational reaction would be to let go as soon as possible in order to minimizes our losses.

Anchoring

The tendency to give a lot of weight to the first piece of information that we come across regarding any topic and to judge additional data around that first piece of information. For example if I ask you “What is the population of Turkey?” you will probably give me a different answer than if I comment right before that “I believe the population of Turkey is close to 40 million people”.

It’s irrational because there is no reason to believe that the first piece of information you got is more or less relevant than the rest or is even right. A rational reaction would be to individually determine how likely each piece of evidence is to be true regardless of the order in which you come across them.

If you want to learn more:

How to systematically make better decisions

Our brains are wired to make quick decisions: get food, escape the predators and pass our genes. Stopping to make deliberate decisions sounds like a very bad idea and not worth the effort. However if we mainly rely on cavemen Joe and Jane’s gut in today’s world we are going to make decisions that we will regret later like not saving enough money to become financially independent, staying in the wrong job or wasting time in useless mind-numbing activities. A good decision making system will not guarantee ideal outcomes for every decision we but it will significantly increase the number of favorable long term outcomes and our happiness.

This post describes a systematic way of making decisions taken from the book Smart Choices which I encourage you to read. I have been using this method for a few months now and it has served me well. It consists of a total of 9 steps and it’s easy to remember through its acronym, PrOACT URL, which stands for:

Problem

What is precisely the problem that you are trying to solve? You should clearly define your decision problem and you should make sure it’s a root cause and not a symptom. Don’t try to decide on the problem “How to spend less money on my dishwasher maintenance that frequently breaks” when the real problem is that you bought a cheap and low quality dishwasher that requires significant maintenance. If you have an ill-defined problem you can spend a lifetime trying to solve it without getting anywhere. Techniques that work well for getting clarity on problems are rephrasing them and making them more specific or more general.

Objectives

What are your values? What things are you trying to improve? You can think of objectives as your ends, as the ultimate answers to “why” you want to do something. For example, if your decision problem is whether you want to buy a car or not when you ask yourself “Why do I want a car?” you may hear yourself saying: for convenience, to save money, to have more freedom and to save time. If you get a car you expect to get more of those things. By clearly stating your values you give your mind more material to come up with good alternatives that you may not consider if you don’t ask yourself “Why?”.

Alternatives

What alternatives do you have? Alternatives are the various solutions to your decision problem. You should try to come up with as many and as varied alternatives as possible. This is the best place to use your lateral thinking skills and creativity. Don’t limit yourself to the default, safest, most popular or to the first idea that comes to your mind. If you have decided that your decision problem is whether to get a car or not your alternatives could be “buying a new car”, “buying a used car”, “renting a car for the weekends and commute by bike to work”, “using a friend’s car”, “buying a motorbike” or “monitor used car deals websites periodically and buy a car once I find an offer that meets my criteria”. I find it useful to set a minimum alternatives quota and force myself to come up with at least X alternatives depending on the decision.

Consequences

What are the consequences of each of your alternatives? A good exercise is to imagine yourself in the future of each of your alternatives and take a honest look at the consequences of your actions. In the car example you may imagine yourself with a big great car driving to many places and enjoying it. But you should also imagine yourself paying car insurance, having the ocasional (lethal or non-lethal) accident, having to look for and pay for a parking spot, bringing the car to maintenance the morning you had a meeting at 9, getting stuck in traffic, etc. The goal of this step is to give you a complete view of what each alternative entails and resist the urge to focus only on the benefits.

Tradeoffs

Alternatives differ from each other in the specific tradeoffs that they make between the objectives involved. You can think of each alternative as a mix of your objectives with different proportions. A powerful technique to analyze tradeoffs is to translate how much you get of each objetive into a common unit like money. For example, if you have two alternatives with varying proportions of “time saved” and “money saved” you could translate time to money by determining how much money you would pay for a given amount of time and then apply the resulting conversion rate to eliminate the “time” objective and, as a consequence, be able to rank the alternatives by a single unit.

Uncertainty

Each alternative has some uncertainty associated with it because we can’t predict the future and we can’t measure with perfect precision every factor involved. However we can quantify uncertainty, that is how likely various events are, and use that information to help us decide. For example: if your decision problem is how to get from A to B, your two alternatives are to do so by plane or by car and the only thing you care about is risk of death then you could check what’s the likelihood of a car accident and a plane accident and decide that a plane is the best choice for you.

Risks

What risks are associated with each of your alternatives? As we just saw each alternative has varying amounts of uncertainty associated with them and each alternative has a different amount of utility or happiness that it will bring you spread over different values. You can calculate risk by taking each alternative’s total utility to you, after converting all the values of a single alternative to a single unit, and multiply that utility by the probability of the alternative’s positive consequences. Then you will be able to decide between alternative A with probability 5% of giving you $100,000 of utility and with probability 95% giving you $1,000 of utility is more or less preferable than alternative B which with 50% probability will give you $50,000 and with 50% probability will give you $500. There is no right or wrong risk threshold. The only wrong thing you can do is ignore your risk tolerance, go for alternative A and later realize that with those odds you shouldn’t really have made the decision. Every person is comfortable with a different level of risk and even the same person will have a different risk tolerance depending on the circumstances. When we are young we are more risk-seeking, useful for hunting and mating, than when we are 80 years old and when we are hungry we are far more risk-seeking than when we have just finished meditating for similar reasons. Determining what level of risk is right for you will help you choose the alternative with the right level of risk for you.

Linked decisions

For each of your current alternatives what decisions will you face in the future? Alternative A to your current decision problem, eg: buy that expensive house you like so much, may sound very appealing today but it will severely limit your options in 20 years when you want to send your kids to university and you are still paying debt.

You should go through this list in the order presented and, as soon as you have a clear winner you don’t need to continue with the remaining steps. I personally found it very useful at the beginning to go through all the steps anyways to get comfortable with them and to make sure I had the right calibration for when to stop. Nowadays I only reach the end of the list for really important or difficult decisions.

We cannot possibly apply this process to every one of the hundreds of decisions we make every day because it would take too much mental energy and time but not all of the decisions we face are equally important. What you want to do is strike a balance: identify the decisions whose consequences will affect you more, apply this method on them and then let cavemen Joe and Jane’s gut handle the rest. With practice this process will become second nature and you will be able to be systematic with a wider range of decisions.