A Brain Hacking Challenge to Create Better Habits

Regular readers of this blog will know that it is in no small part a personal experiment. I love writing and like the idea that other people might get something out of what I write about, but writing also helps me to organise my thoughts and then to reference my thoughts later on. At the same time, publishing my writing motivates me to write more often, to do it more honestly, and to stay true to intentions or goals that I set more often than I might otherwise.

These are little hacks that take advantage of pretty basic but well understood human psychologies like peer pressure and reward. Setting out my annual goals at the start of the year, for example, has been a huge help in moving towards those goals in ways I don’t think I would have done otherwise.

Some of those goals were to experiment with doing less of certain things (like drinking coffee and booze and reading the news) and others were to experiment with doing more of certain things (like meditation and exercise). While I have dabbled in some of these areas I haven’t made the kinds of transformational changes I was hoping to achieve this year, and so I’ve decided it’s time to go hard or go home.

REWIRING THE BRAIN

What I’ve come up with is a 100 day challenge with a catchy name (inspired by one of my favourite books) during which I hope to slowly rewire my brain so that by the end of it I will have replaced a bunch of dirty old habits with shiny brand new good ones. I’m going to do that by rewarding good behaviour and punishing bad (through a points based system) and I’m going to use the power of peer pressure as an additional motivational boost by committing to publishing my results periodically and at the end of the 100 days.

Points, though completely arbitrary, work well both as reward and punishment because they can be weighted according to the activity you are trying to reward or punish, and how easy it is to do or hard it is not to do, and how badly you want to/don’t want to do it. Drinking booze will get huge punishment because I really don’t want to drink a lot during this period, while running a race will get a big reward score because it takes a lot of effort and I know how training for a race strengthens many of the good habits I want to cultivate. I can also look at total good and total bad points each week rather than just a total of all points (although the latter will also be insightful). That means a booze session won’t mean I wipe out all the good points scored over the week. I’ll also be able to see if scoring highly on good points means a low score on bad points, and vice versa (I expect a correlation here).

Data geeks like me will have recognised how interesting all this will become later on. I’ll have tracked over a dozen habits (good and bad) every day for over 3 months so digging into this information will hopefully be quite insightful.

CARROT, STICK, OR BOTH?

Why have bad points at all, you might ask? Surely carrot is more motivating than stick? I’m not a psychologist, but my instinct tells me that certain habits are better encouraged, and others are better discouraged. For example, I want to sit down for less than 4 hours a day. If I get “good” points for this I might happily ignore those points for the ease of continuing to sit while I work, knowing that I’m scoring points elsewhere and so this transgression will be hidden amid the total scores. However, if I score bad points for going over my allotted 4 hours, then this will show up and I will be quite likely to want to avoid scoring those points.

I’ll enter these into an excel scheet and produce all sorts of graphs and things. Does all this sound a bit weird? A bit geeky? Maybe even a bit authoritarian? Well maybe it is (I happen to quite like graphs and data and things!), but I’m willing to bet that it will work, and the proof will be if there is an upward trend in good points and a downward trend in bad points. I appreciate that this is all a bit silly, but frankly, if it works, who cares if it’s geeky or weird?

The 100 days starts tomorrow, Sunday 26th October and will end on Tuesday 3rd February 2015. I will publish my results after 35, 70, and 100 days, no matter how awesome or embarrassing they are. If you fancy joining in on this one for one of those periods or for the whole 100 days, feel free!