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Practical Advice for Changing Your Habits

Published 12/1/2017

In today's episode, we discuss some practical advice for habit change.

Today's episode is brought to you by Linode.

Linode provides superfast SSD based Linux servers in the cloud starting at $5 a month. Linode is offering Developer Tea listeners $20 worth of credit if you use the code DEVELOPERTEA2017 at checkout. Head over to spec.fm/linode to learn more about what Linode has to offer to Developer Tea listeners!

Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
Why do we so often do the things that we don't want to do? How can we change it? And how is it possible that we have competing motivations inside of us? This is what we're talking about on today's episode and on a few of the future episodes of Developer Tea. My name is Jonathan Cutrell. My goal on this show is to help you become a better developer, to help driven developers become better at what they do, connect to their career purpose and positively influence the people around them. And I've said this on multiple shows now and hopefully it's thinking in that this show is for those people. So you've probably found yourself asking this question if you're in that group. How do I change my own behavior? And is it possible to change my own behavior? And also, why is it that I have competing motivations? What is this thing in my head that's causing me to have one part of me that wants to do something really badly? And then the other part of me doesn't really want to go through the process of making that happen. And this is a huge field of research. There's tons of research on the subjects, on the subject of habit, on the subject of behavior change, on the subject of choices and behavioral economics. Certainly, we've talked about Daniel Coniman and his book Thinking Fast and Slow. It's all about this subject. If you want to dive deeper, I very much so encourage you to read that book. I don't encourage many specific books on this show that is one book that I believe that every developer should pick up and read. But for today's discussion, I want to talk about some practical advice that I have for you to help change your behavior. And more specifically, some practical advice that's actually informed by research and theory. So in today's episode, we're going to talk a little bit about why this happens, why we have the competing arguments on our head about wanting to do one thing and just happening to do a different thing. What exactly that mechanism is and what's happening when that occurs. And then I'm going to give you some advice for how you can better enable yourself for that behavioral change. And the answer is somewhat complicated. As it turns out, our brains are not as simple as we would hope and our intentions don't always match our actions because of this complexity. Of course, we've already mentioned Thinking Fast and Slow, but the concept, the core thesis of that book is separating the fast thinking from the slow thinking, the fast thinking being the immediate reaction, stuff that kind of happens automatically, and the slow thinking being the much more methodical and well thought out kind of processing, deeper processing. This is the kind of stuff we do when we're developing systems architecture or when we're doing some kind of deep analysis in our code. But the fast thinking is when we name a variable Foo without really thinking about it, right? This happens all the time. There are things that our brain does and again, going back to many previous episodes, things our brain does to take shortcuts. And the reason it does this is so we can save that energy for other stuff, right? This is a biological response at its core level. And so we can actually use our brains for the more important tasks in the deep thinking. So we use these heuristics, we use these shortcuts. We find ways of optimizing automatically, unfortunately, sometimes that optimization doesn't fall in line with our desires. And when I say desires, I mean, the things that our slow thinking has informed our brains that we want. So instead of thinking of your brain as this unified, singular, intentional thing that sits up in the top of your head, you should think of it as a series of processes, a series of various components that fit together and operate as a unit. And sometimes those components quite simply don't agree. And it might feel like a bug, but as it turns out, this is actually really good for us, our fast thinking and the gap between our fast thinking and our slow thinking very often can be a good thing. More particularly, our fast thinking and our intuition is very often correct. The fast thinking heuristics are leading us down the right path most of the time. But of course, there are problems. The problems with this optimization is that your fast thinking isn't going to shift immediately. Your slow thinking informing your fast thinking is not going to happen overnight. This is once again a very slow biological process and you have to kind of rewire your brain. And there's not really a good guidebook on how to rewire your brain. Of course, again, there's been quite a bit of research done on habit formation. And we want to kind of dive into a little bit of that research. But more specifically, I'm going to give you a practical tip today that will help you develop good habits and kind of short circuit that fast thinking so that your slow thinking is actually the behavior that you follow. That's the hope for today's episode. But real quick, before we do that, I want to talk about today's sponsor, Linode. Linode has been a sponsor of Developer Tea for a long time. And I just want to take a moment to thank them for allowing me to continue doing this show. You've probably heard all of the specifics of the Linode plans. You can get a gigabyte of RAM for $5 a month. It's an insanely good deal. And Linode serves a very early stage young developers in the beginning of their careers all the way up to the highest level service offering that you can possibly imagine needing and all of that is supported on Linode. But they also support the community. This is an important and often overlooked fact. And you have a podcast sponsor. This is a big bet that Linode is taking on the community that you are going to be driven enough to care about your careers to listen to this podcast, allow it to affect you positively so that you can succeed and therefore bring your business to Linode. That's how this whole ecosystem works. So we're talking about economics and that is a decision. That's a bet that Linode is putting not on me, not on this podcast, but on you as the listener. And that is a huge bet. So I hope you are encouraged by Linode putting that bet on you. And I hope you'll go and check out the services that they offer. You can check it out at spec.fm slash Linode. And there's tons of offerings that they have. We're not going to detail them all in today's episode because again, Linode is a continuous sponsor of this podcast. And they're going to continue sponsoring us in the 2018. So don't forget, Linode is providing you $20 worth of credit for using the Co-Developer Tea2017 at checkout. So thank you again to Linode for supporting the development community and sponsoring Developer Tea. So I want you to ask a simple question, what is the easiest thing to do? What is the easiest thing that your brain can do? And it's kind of a trick question because the answer is nothing. The answer is nothing. If your brain had to do nothing at all, it would be a very happy organ, right? Because it wouldn't have to use any energy. It would be very happy. Now granted, you know, if you've ever tried meditation, then that feels pretty effortful, right? That can feel very difficult to actually silence your brain and actually give it the space to do nothing that seems pretty difficult. So it's not just thinking that the brain doesn't want to do. It's acting on those thoughts. And even more articulately, acting on those thoughts in a way that you don't normally act. So changing your behavior, this is difficult for your brain to do. And the easiest thing for your brain to do and what it's going to strive to do on its own is not change, not change your default behavior. So this is something that we have to investigate a little bit because it's a very strong bias that our brain has towards laziness. And functional laziness. This is something that we do to protect that energy. And this is the seemingly uphill battle that we have to fight with behavior change. So what can we do to fix this problem or at least to combat this problem? Well, we can use it to our advantage, right? We can use this default behavior bias towards our advantage. And this is a very simple principle that you can use in so many areas of both your career and your personal life. And this goes right back to a previous episode we did called useful defaults. And the principle is simple, opt yourself in to your good behaviors by default. Opt yourself into your good behaviors by default. What does this mean? First of all, let's cover some psychological backing ground here. Some studies were done on this concept of default choices and having these good defaults and more specifically, there's a famous paper from 2003 called Do Defaults Save Lives. And the data gathered for the study is whether someone chose to donate their organs or not. And as it turns out, there's a massive difference between someone who chooses to opt in and someone who chooses to opt out. In other words, if you have a box that is unchecked on the form for organ donation, in this case, and you have a box that is checked, the likelihood that the box is going to remain in that current state, whatever that state is by default is pretty large. In many cases, the number of people who stayed opted in was somewhere close to 100%. This is in six or seven different countries. And whereas the people who decided to opt in, who had to make that choice to check the box, all of the people in the study are below or right around 30%, most of them below 20%. So how can you use this to your advantage? Well, the first step is to automate your good intentions. If you want to save money, and hopefully you've heard this financial advice, you should be automating those good intentions. You should automatically save money and you never even see that decision happen. To make that decision once, you decide with your slow thinking, I want to save money. I intentionally want to save the money that I earn so that I can have more later or I can have some in the invent of an emergency or whatever your reason for saving that money is. And setting up that automatic transfer is going to be hugely valuable to you. Companies that run 401k programs, they find that automatically opting people in to a slowly increasing rate of their 401k results in, you guessed it, people with higher amounts in their 401k's. In a software project, if you require that tests pass before that software, that code base is deployed, except if you override it, right? You have to make it to where it's overridden. What this means is you have to opt out of testing rather than opt in, testing automatically happens and that is the default deployment process. You're going to have much more adherent to the test standards, especially if you require a few steps to get past it, right? If you require a few steps to actually override it. This is also more evidence as to why cleaning out your pantry is probably a good idea if you want to go on a diet. If you don't have the junk food available to you, then it takes much more work to get the junk food. Even something as simple as moving something further away from you can make a huge difference to your behavioral decisions. Developing good habits starts in your slow thinking process and you have to take some time to decide what those good habits are going to be. And once you do that, spend some extra time finding ways to make those habits your default action, something that automatically happens to you. This doesn't mean that it's going to be a walk in the park to change your habits. It doesn't mean that you're not going to fail from time to time. They're not going to take those extra steps to do the thing that you don't want to do, that your slow thinking doesn't want you to do. What it does mean that you are making intentional efforts to take advantage of the natural way that your brain already works to accomplish the behavior change that you are setting out to accomplish. I hope this episode has been helpful. We're going to do more on this topic in the next episode of Developer Tea. So if you don't want to miss out on that, go ahead and subscribe and whatever podcasting app you use. This subject I'm very interested in this subject. If you have thoughts, if you have studies that you found, if you have interesting facts or theories even that you'd like to send my way, please reach out. You can email me at developert.gmail.com. You can also find me on Twitter at Developer Tea and at jCutrell. Thanks again to Leno for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. Use the Code Developer Tea. 2017. And check out to get $20 worth of credit. Spectatifim slash Leno. Thank you again to Leno. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time, enjoy your tea.