Good Habits: How I Transitioned Away From Social Media, Gaming, and The Internet

A good friend of mine read my article life without social media and had a few questions: how did you come to terms with using social media with the reasons you gave like boredom? What motivated you to change your social media usage? The answer lies with habits.

What Are Habits, Really?

If someone asked you to define “habit”, what would you say? Until recently, I probably would have said something like “a repeating pattern of behavior, which is hard for some people to change, and easier for others. And the ability to change habits is sometimes called “willpower”.

But I was surprised to learn habits are much more than that. As it turns out, habits are little chunks of auto-pilot behavior that get burned right into your neurology – permanently. Once you develop a habit, you can never truly erase that groove that has been worn into your brain, even if you manage to deactivate it.

I’ve recently been reading a lot of books and topics about habits, including Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. All of the above authors have won Nobel prizes, and those are links to Amazon where you can check them out.

Daniel Kahneman author of Thinking, Fast and Slow

Habits are Brain Highways

In recent years, due to advances in brain imaging and research output, we know more about ourselves and human brains than ever before.

When we do something for the first time, our brain makes these new connections. Think of the time you first learned how to drive, how to ride a bike, or shopped at your local grocery store. At one point, you had no idea where anything was or how to do things. But, you now do these things without even thinking. That “without even thinking” bit is what demonstrates the power of a habit.

The new connections we make in our brains get hardened as we sleep. I learned this in Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by UC Berkeley professor Matthew Walker. This may be why you have dreams about something that you just did for the first time. Or, why we dream about novel situations that have just happened for the first time. Pretty cool!

Either way, by practicing a habit a few times (like shopping at the new grocery store), we begin to perform completely on autopilot. Personally, I can drive to the store, buy what I need, and unpack it while hardly thinking. I’m sure you can too.

I recommend taking a look at this video by the German science YouTube channel, Kurzgesagt. They’ve received widespread acclaim for their informative and entertaining videos, and have independent fact checkers review each video before publication. It summarizes this idea of habits very well

Great video, includes a fact-checked sources document, linked here

The Habit Cycle

Now that we know what a habit is, we need to understand how they work.

The body of the habit, The Routine, is the actual process of going to the store or scrolling through Instagram or going shopping on a lunch break. The Routine can be simple: brush teeth in the morning, or it can be wonderfully complicated: Wake up, drive to work, pick up a McDonalds’ coffee, park the car, say hello to a few people, and start working.

Habits have two key ideas that surround the routine: Drop-off and Triggers.

Drop-off is the point where you find yourself saying “wow, I can’t believe I did all of that” or “woah… I did not mean to drive here”. Habits really are automatic. As a result, it can sometimes be a shock to discover that you were doing something completely automatically. That’s what I call drop-off, since the routine just drops you off after it has completed.

Finally, triggers. Trigger is a tough word due to its widespread usage in many contexts. However, in this case, triggers are very simple. Triggers activate the routine–Triggers are what start the autopilot of a habit. Common triggers include boredom, hunger, thirst, and even the more tangible: seeing a coffee machine, smelling the McDonalds smell, etc.

Triggers generally kickstart the routine of a habit. This is extremely important to understand, especially if you desire to change your life.

CAT BREAK

You’ve been learning a lot. Take a break with my pet cat, Artie. I don’t know why, but for some reason he has started sitting in my sink.

You’re going to learn some super surprising and very helpful information in the next section, and I wanted to include this break so that you really can use what you are about to learn.

Artie

A Few Methods On Re-Writing Habits

So, given what we know now about triggers and the routine, we are able to start generating new habits and changing the way we live our lives in order to meet our own goals.

1. Identify and Remove Triggers

The most obvious trigger that I can think of is having a phone next to your bed when you fall asleep. This guarantees that when you wake up in the morning, a phone will be there, and the sight of a phone is a significant trigger for hundreds of millions of people.

Identifying triggers is impossible if you don’t believe in them, but even if you do it’s not always easy. The strangest things can be triggers, such as being home alone or seeing a red car drive by. Being mindful and aware of your thoughts is important.

The easiest way to find a trigger is to work backwards. You find yourself eating In-n-out, when you really didn’t mean to. Well, how did you get there? By working backwards you can find out when you first had the thought to get the burger, and whatever happened right before was the trigger.

It’s crazy, but it’s true. Your thoughts and actions are generated by triggers, much to the surprise of many people. Finding and removing triggers: putting the phone charger in a new spot, driving in a different lane, and making your environment different are great ways to change your behavior.

2. Set Up New Triggers

I wrote an article about changing your life by changing your environment, and the big key idea in that article is about creating new triggers and hiding old ones. I put my running shoes out in the morning, and fill up a CamelBak the night before in order to make running in the morning easy. Now, all I have to do is just get out of bed. Once I see the shoes and the CamelBak, I intentionally set a trigger trap for myself to activate a morning run routine. It took a week or two to get used to it, and visiting my parents made it much harder to run as a result of the missing triggers, but when I go for a run in the morning it takes almost no effort–surprising most people.

But it’s not that surprising. The whole point of habits is that they’re autopilot. You already do very complicated tasks that no doubt required hard brain-work when you first set out to do it–driving for example. Why would running be harder than driving a 3,500lb automobile? Physical exertion, you may say, but we are all built for running and not driving cars.

3. Modify Routines After Trigger Initialization

Another option you have at your disposal is modifying the routine.

For example, let’s say you want to drink tea instead of coffee in the morning. When you wake up, look directly at your coffee maker and then brew a cup of tea. Soon enough, the coffee maker will actually inspire you to make a glass of tea. You could also look at the coffee maker and then do 50 pushups, but modifying a routine that much will not work in the long term.

You can copy this idea pretty much everywhere. The closer your new routine is to the old one, the smoother the transition will go. If, for example, you hop on the couch to watch TV after work but want to start reading more, just open a book and read a single sentence or a page and then watch TV. Slowly, as long as you apply some discipline for the first month, it will become fully and completely automatic. Seriously.

4. Pavlov’s Dogs

Most people know that Pavlov trained his dogs to salivate when hearing a bell. He did this by ringing a bell, and then giving the dogs food. Soon, they began to anticipate food whenever he rang the bell. That is the essence of a trigger, and there’s no doubt that you also experience this. Just drive past a McDonalds (or watch a video ad with a delicious meal) and your mouth will water.

Think about that for a moment. Advertisers can actually make your mouth water!!

But, back to Pavlov and his dogs. Most people don’t know that Pavlov also taught his dogs to no longer salivate when the bell was rung, undoing the training. He did this by ringing the bell and no longer giving food.

That is actually a huge win for us humans. It turns out, it just takes awhile for these triggers to lose power. You only have to stop doing something for around a month or two. A tough month, but the triggers lose their power, and you will no longer have such a strong reaction to triggers.

So don’t reply immediately to that text message, and turn off notifications for all of your apps. Maybe you will also see the benefits of quitting social media as well.

5. Re-wiring Habits

This mini-section went over a few ways that you could change your life and live it on autopilot. You don’t need to just use one of these. Some more difficult habits to create require the use of all of them at once. Take some time to think about how you could use these methods in your life, and maybe leave a comment letting hundreds of other readers learn from your interpretation.

Us Engineers And Designers Know All About This

Whether or not you believe in triggers, the routine, and habits–it doesn’t matter. Notifications, e-mail reminders, advertisements, and social media feeds are all built with habituation and habit generation. They use psychology and statistics in ways beyond our imagination, including repeated exposure (why do I keep seeing the same ads!?!?) and variable reward rates (gee, nobody has liked my post in awhile… oh snap! A like!). Yeah, Instagram knows that your post hasn’t been liked in awhile and as a result they moved it to the top of someone’s feed so that you would open the app again. Technology!

Millions of scientists and engineers are using your psychology to make you do things that aren’t in your best interest. It’s not explicitly harmful, but it is happening. Notifications are designed to make you check an app. They unintentionally make you use your device much more than you anticipate, but that can be changed.

What Happened When I Quit Social Media

Over the past few months, I’ve made a lot of changes to my life. However, there was a lot that I misunderstood about life. For example, I thought that after identifying social media as a large time-wasting problem in my life, cutting it out would solve all of my problems. I would be going for bike rides, hitting the gym, reading more–all within a day of deleting my accounts.

But, really, nothing happened at first. I was pretty uncomfortable with the silence and pace of normal everyday life. Life can be pretty boring, but that drove me to do better things with my time, and honestly it was pretty tough at first.

I did everything that I had learned to do in order to make this transition as effective as possible. I put my phone out of the bedroom at all times, I deleted all of my accounts and disabled almost every notification I could think of. Further, I set up new triggers for new activities and removed old ones.

Within about three weeks, I was already nearing completion of new habits. I regularly went to the gym, I was reading so much more (almost 35 books this year so far), and I had started feeling better about myself.

Habits Make Us, and We Make Our Habits

In conclusion, I learned that you can get used to anything. Most people are not trying very hard on a daily basis because habits have them flying on autopilot. Writing complicated and notorious Objective-C at my job has become easy, due to habits. I know where all the buttons are and I know what most of them do. As a result, I am able to complete small tasks automatically. I’m sure you do too.

The point of this article is to highlight that changing your life is only hard for a little bit of time. It gets easy after a pretty quick time period. As long as you keep the triggers you want to have active, you will be flying through the most complicated tasks on autopilot in no time.

If you liked this article, I strongly recommend reading The Miracle of Compounding. Small changes make the biggest impact.

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