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The Slump: A Crucial Factor to Building New Habits

18/09/2009 3 comments
Exhausted dog

Photo by emarquetti

Building habits is key to personal progress and success. If you manage to continually build new, positive habits that increase your productivity, your skills or your happiness, then you are obviously on a fast track to a wonderful life. But, as you probably know, it can be very challenging to build a new habit up to the point where it is truly integrated into your life. Think “Motivation” – a theme absolutely pivotal to almost every book, blog, seminar and system concerned with self-improvement. After all, it’s not that we don’t know what’s good for us. We know perfectly well that we should get our asses of the couch and do that workout, finally clean out that messy drawer and finish that project that’s been at the back of our minds for so long.

But somehow, we can’t get ourselves to get up and do it. Somehow, there is just too much inertia and it can seem impossible to overcome. And so, we make an exception and don’t do the workout today. Soon, the exception becomes the norm, the guilt diminishes and what once was an exciting new part of our lives somehow fades and disappears.

Presentism

Have a quick look around the producto-blogosphere on the subject of motivation. You can find countless posts on how to make motivation a breeze – if there’s one thing there isn’t a shortage of on the internet, it’s X-point lists on how to take all the effort out of self-motivation. I am not going to contribute to that collection in this post, because while I have one piece of very valuable advice when it comes to motivation, I can’t say it’s easy to follow.

The root of the motivational problem lies in psychological presentism. Presentism is caused by the fact that whatever we think about, we always use our present situation as a starting point. All our thoughts, be they of the future or the past, of things close or far away, are always distinctly influenced by what’s here, now. This is why it’s difficult to think of what you would like to eat when you are full. How does presentism apply to motivation? Let’s take exercise as an example. Let’s say you read an inspiring article or a book about all the benefits of exercise and you decide to get started with a regular workout routine. In the beginning, you’ll no doubt be very excited and enthusiastic about it, reading up on tips for your workout, perhaps buying new running shoes, some dumbbells or a heart rate monitor. The first few workouts go very well and you feel fantastic afterwards. You picture how much better your life will be from now on and how great it will be to lose some weight, become more athletic and attractive etc, etc. In this state of enthusiasm, it’s very difficult to imagine that you’ll ever be unmotivated.

But then it happens: One morning, you wake up feeling pretty squashed and you just can’t get yourself to go for that run or to lift those weights. You’re having a terrible day and there’s just too much work to do to squeeze in a visit to the gym. Your muscles are sore, there’s that weird pain in your shoulder and your motivation reaches an all-time low. In this new emotional state, it’s difficult to imagine why you would be excited or enthusiastic about the prospect of working out several times a week. Isn’t it all just futile effort? After all, you’ve hardly lost any weight and looking in the mirror, you still don’t resemble anything you’d expect to see on the cover of a glossy magazine.
This is the point where many conclude that they have somehow “lost it”, that they have failed or that the whole thing was a bad idea to begin with. Sometime later you come to regret that you stopped, you see regular exercise in a positive light again and, perhaps, the whole process starts over.

Know The Slump

Here’s the thing: This will always happen. You will always lose your initial momentum, you will always find yourself unmotivated, you will always experience this slump, when you start something new. Whether it’s exercising regularly, launching a community project, writing a blog or starting a new business, the slump is all but unavoidable. No matter what you do, there will always be a tendency for everything to return to the way it was before (this is known as homeostasis).

So, what can you do about this? As I have already stated, I can’t offer you an easy solution. Here are two things that can help anyway (they help me immensely):

1. Anticipate it.
Know that there will be times when you won’t feel like sticking to your plan at all. Expect to be unmotivated at some point in the future. This way, it will not take you by surprise and you will not feel like this is the end of everything. Instead it’s just part of building the new habit and it you knew it would happen. This can be likened to knowing that you’ll get a jab when you visit your doctor. It will still hurt, but you knew it would happen and you realize it’s part of the process of getting healthy again.

2. Grit your teeth.
This is where discipline comes in. Sometimes, it’s not about getting yourself motivated, sometimes it’s just about gritting your teeth and doing it, despite not being motivated. Find a personal mantra that helps you override your emotional response and reminds you of your discipline. My mantra for such situations is “my discipline is my freedom”, but I guess I’ll have to explain the background to this in another post. Remind yourself that you made the decision to stick with this new habit when you were feeling good and had thought clearly about it. Now, in your negative emotional state, it is not the time to make new decisions because those decisions would be greatly compromised by your mood.

Good News

As you have probably guessed by now, I myself have gone through the cycle of starting a new habit, experiencing the slump, quitting, regretting it and starting again, many, many times. I’ve also seen my friends go through this cycle countless times and from my work as a martial arts instructor, I know that virtually every new student experiences the slump within the first six months after they start.

The good news is that the slump is very predictable and that it’s usually nonrecurring. It’s predictable because it almost always strikes within a few months of beginning something new. Depending on factors such as social and monetary commitment (if you pay for it, and told all your friends, you’ll last a bit longer) and frequency (something you do daily will lead to the slump more quickly than something you do once a week), the slump can occur sooner or later, but if I had to narrow it down, I’d say you’ll experience the slump at some point between the 10th and 20th time you repeat the new behaviour. And if you get through it, sticking to your new habit, that will have been the worst of it. I’ve never experienced a second slump as bad as the first one and the longer I continue with a new habit, the further apart the following “mini-slumps” are.

Getting back to the example of regular exercise, you can rest assured that if you keep going and drag yourself through that slump, then after just a few workouts fuelled by discipline alone, you’ll see a light at the end of the tunnel, your motivation will return and you will be much, much closer to having acquired a new habit.

By all means, learn about all the possibilities you have to get yourself more motivated, but never forget to anticipate the inevitable slump and when all self-motivation fails, remember: This is part of the progress, you can fight this thing with your willpower and you will come out the other side a stronger and happier person.

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Fool’s Plight: The Dunning-Kruger Effect

14/09/2009 Leave a comment

(Total reading time: < 4 minutes)

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias that warps our ability to judge our own competence. To put it very bluntly, stupid people tend to think that they are quite brilliant, because they are too stupid to tell that they are, in fact, stupid.
(Don’t worry, I know it’s a bit more subtle than that.)

The effect is named after Justin Kruger and David Dunning, who discovered it by doing a series of tests, after the completion of which the participants were asked to guess how well they think they did. The participants were also asked to evaluate their general skill in the tested subject. For example, taking part in one of the experiments, you would have first completed a written test of logical reasoning, similar to an IQ-test. You would then have been asked to guess how well you did in this particular test and also asked to evaluate how good you generally are at logical reasoning.

Here is what the results of the study looked like:

Dunning Kruger2

In the graph, the results are sorted by how well the participants actually did in the test, as we can see from the Actual Score plot steadily rising from left to right. A minor effect that can be seen is that practically everyone evaluates their own ability as being slightly better than their test scores indicate. Basically, everyone is saying “I might have made a few mistakes in this test, but generally, I’m pretty good at this”.

By far the more dramatic effect however, is that most participants dramatically misjudge their abilities. For starters, everyone thinks they are better than average (>50), an effect also known as Illusory Superiority. As we can see, the worst performers’ estimation of their own skill is quite similar to the best performers’ estimation. It seems that those who actually are of slightly more than average skill have the most realistic assessment of their own skill. The best performers underestimate themselves, which might be partially due to modesty.

Dunning and Kruger state that the cause of the effect is that incompetence at a certain skill also robs one of the ability to make an accurate judgement concerning that skill. This, coupled with the tendency to protect one’s feeling of self-worth (a tendency every healthy person displays) inevitably leads to the crass overestimation shown in the study.

If you would like to learn more about the studies, I highly recommend this post on Pro-Science. It even includes a link to the original research-paper, which you can download.

Practical Examples

In the opening paragraph, I made the very condescending statement that stupid people are too stupid to recognize their own stupidity.

This is true, but you have to keep in mind that we are all stupid at some things. I know that I’ve experienced the DK effect myself several times. I have often underestimated the difficulty and complexity of a task (and therefore also my expected skill at it), before I knew much about it. Maybe the “I’d be pretty good at that/I bet that’s easy”-effect is a mild version of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Have you encountered any of the following, thinking them yourself or hearing someone make a similar statement?

  • Photography is really easy. It’s not like painting or drawing, where the artist actually has to do something.
  • It must be great to be a novelist, all they have to do for a living is tell stories.
  • I can’t believe how crappy this movie/videogame/comic/website is! Even I could do better than that.
    Of course, once you get into serious photography, try to write a book or make a movie, videogame, comic or website, you’ll encounter a whole new world of complexity and difficulty and as you progress, you become more humble.

Another example of the DK effect is very familiar to me from martial arts training: Many students of martial arts become overconfident after about eight to twelve months of training. With some, but only very little, experience under their belt, they tend to think they are invincible and could take on almost anyone. This is the time when they are also most likely to give tips to others, correct them and otherwise try to help them. After a while, if they keep training, this usually settles and they realize that there is still a lot to learn.

What Can I Learn from This?

The DK effect is certainly very interesting, but is it also useful to know about? First of all, I believe knowledge of the effect can help you avoid falling for it. As described in some of the work done by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, experience is a pretty good indicator of skill. So instead of asking yourself “How good am I at this?”, ask yourself “How many hours have I put in?”. If the answer is “dozens” or “hundreds”, then it’s unlikely that you are already very skilled. If, however, the answer is “thousands”, then it’s more likely that you can trust your intuitive judgement of your own skill.

To me personally, the Dunning-Kruger effect is one of the reasons I want to dedicate most of this blog to exploring and testing, rather than just expressing opinions.

For an interesting philosophical approach to the DK effect, check out this post on ribbonfarm. To see why my testing and exploring might get me nowhere, see this tidbit on the connections blog. I’m not sure if I want to dedicate a post to the subject mentioned there as well.

Mistaken Expectations, Wrong Predictions

06/09/2009 Leave a comment

How do you decide what restaurant to go to, which movie to see, what pants to wear today? And what about big and important decisions like what career-path to choose, where to settle down and buy a house or whether to have kids or not? To some extent every decision we make is based on predictions. We imagine what an evening at one restaurant would be like versus an evening at a different one and make our desicion based on where we imagine we will have more fun, get better food and other criteria.

Interestingly, there are some systematic mistakes we tend to make when we imagine such future events and this can lead us to making bad decisions. Dan Gilbert is a psychology professor and the author of Stumbling on Happiness, a book that I am currently reading and might have to add to my list of recommended books soon. Watch the video below to see Dan Gilbert talk about how we make decisions and where we go wrong. The video is very much worth seeing, not just for it’s interesting content but also because of Gilbert’s wit and charismatic delivery.

If you enjoyed this and want more, you can watch another TED-talk by Dan Gilbert here (what makes us happy?) or visit his website.