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Build a Habit-Robot in your Brain - Dilbert Blog

Build a Habit-Robot in your Brain

Did you hear about a book that is designed to put little kids to sleep when parents read it aloud?

The book uses words that act on the subconscious to make kids sleepy. Is that possible, you ask the trained hypnotist writing this post?

Yup.

I don’t know if the author executed the concept well, but the idea is well within the range of things I have seen in person. Kids are highly suggestible.

Luckily we grow out of it. By the time we are adults we can use our powers of reason to fend off the many influences coming at us from all directions. Using all the mental tools of adulthood plus our education and experience, we are able to build a mental fortress around our…

Just kidding. 

We never build a defense. Words reprogram adults just as easily as kids. Donald Trump teaches us that every day. And if you want to take a desk nap, I can put you to sleep just as fast as that book for kids. But I won’t. You have things to do.

We humans think of ourselves as single entities because our bodies make each of us look like one person. I tried to maintain that illusion for most of my life and have finally released it. Now I accept that I am lots of personalities and I cycle through them during the day according to a schedule I do not set. When my body chemistry makes me confident and ambitious, I’m that guy. When my body chemistry goes in another direction, I’m another person for awhile. But those personalities are the average of what is going on in my mind at any time. And thinking of myself as the average of my mind’s competing forces was not useful to me. 

My current model for what I call my “self” is that my mind is like a riot at an insane asylum. Luckily, one of the inmates was wrongly committed. That guy has the job of trying to get the real lunatics under control before the body that supports all of them does something dumb.

In my model, if the other patients are calm, the lone voice of reason can dominate the situation. It knows how to avoid the more dangerous patients and coerce the gullible ones. It makes deals. It builds alliances. It does what it can to assert itself as the only sane voice in a building full of irrational actors. 

But that only works when the other patients are relatively calm. If any of them gets worked up, they are larger than the tiny rational voice and overpower it.

Where some of you see free will in this scenario, I see math. If the crazy players in my head outnumber the rational part of my mind, they win. Sometimes my rational mind uses judo-like tricks to fight above its weight class, but it is still one player in a building full of lunatics. It can’t win them all.

(Yeah, I know this sounds like an animated movie you recently saw. That’s an “anchor” I could not avoid. It just dragged your attention somewhere I don’t want it to go and slowed the flow of my post. See how hypnosis considerations are woven into writing? This is just one example.)

The insane asylum model of the mind has some advantages. In my old mental model, any form of stress felt as if all of me was having a mental problem. Now I see it as one of my fellow patients going on a rampage. I need to sedate him.

So my rational player does what it knows to do. In preparation for future riots that I know are coming, I have moved to habit (via repetition and reward) my exercise routine. If my rational mind needs to activate the habit subroutine, it can do so with a whistle even if it is already under a dog pile of crazy actors. Habits are like robot warriors that the rational part can order into combat. I activate the exercise habit-robot and try to hold off the rioting crazies until…

I go to the gym. Happy chemicals flow into my body. I stab a sedative into the biggest nut on top of me and push him off.

Lesson 1: You can’t exercise-away real problems. But most of what stresses you might not be that big. Exercise is one way to sedate the lunatic on top of you.

Lesson 2: You need a robot army in your brain to help your rational player when the crazy parts of your mind start to riot. You can build your robots as “habits” so you can call upon them when needed. 

Your tiny rational voice might not have the power to overcome a hospital full of lunatics. But your robot army (the habits you engineered) can dispatch them easily.

Get yourself some mental robots by building habits.

I am putting together a reading list for people who are interested in persuasion as a craft. This book on forming habits will be one of the most important ones on the list. Think of it as a way to arm the rational part of your brain to fight off the crazy parts.

And obviously if you want to see more about the Moist Robot view of the world, you need to read my book. That will be on the list too.

In Top Tech Blog, you need a self-driving golf cart because the game can be exhausting if you do a bunch of steering. Who has time for that? 

Scott

In other news, people on Twitter are voicing surprise that I am not totally incompetent. I really, really need to improve my brand.