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Can the concepts of progressive overload and periodization be applied to anything outside of the exercise realm? How universal are the theories of “general adaptation”? Today, I look to the self-help literature to find out.
My wife, Lauren, and I have a silly running gag with self-help books. We’ve both dipped our toes in the water of middle management and quickly discovered that UC Berkeley provides zero resources for leadership training. So we’ve explored various external resources, including the glitzy world of business literature. And that world is utterly amazing. Most of these books are just one-liners that get stretched to 250 pages. They take some pretty simple ideas and sell them as can’t-fail strategies to life hacking. How can you say so little in so many words? And yet they sell millions of copies. Dazzled by the spectacle, Lauren and I now have a little self-help book club trying to keep up with the zeitgeist.
Partially because of my n-of-1 obsession, we recently got into the World of Habits. The Habits Clan thinks you can get yourself to do just about anything with a few simple tricks of behavioral conditioning. If you “stack habits” together or “change your identity,” you eventually get some new habit, and from this habit comes perpetual improvement. Who doesn’t want that?
They are not even subtle about it. Here’s the cover of BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits.
James Clear’s Atomic Habits is more over the top than Tiny Habits. Clear asserts that “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.” He tries to convince you that you can get one percent better every day. And when that 1% compounds, look out world:
After a year you are (1.01)^365 = 38 times better than when you started. I’d love to be 38 times better. Sign me up, please.
This is, of course, absurd. It’s hard to think of an example where an adult gets 37 times better at something through daily micro-improvements. While it’s clear that this graph is hyperbole, where does the idea come from?
Self-help books often send you on wild goose chases to find the “science” on which their ideas are based. But the Habits Clan is mostly pulling from the psychology literature on operant conditioning. The idea is that behaviors are reinforced by appropriate systems of reward and punishment. Positive reinforcement refers to the dynamic where if you do Behavior X you get Reward Y. You like Reward Y! So you do Behavior X more. Negative reinforcement has the same feedback dynamics but with a different form of stimulus. If you do Behavior A, you get less Displeasure B. You really don’t like Displeasure B! So you do Behavior A more. Note that both of these end with you doing more of the associated behavior.
Operant conditioning has the same qualitative dynamics as the “fitness” part of the fitness-fatigue model. But the inputs and outputs have very different meanings. In exercise, repeating a behavior increases a capability. In operant conditioning, a stimulus increases the rate of behavior.
Where do the habits come in? Let’s focus on the positive reinforcement mechanisms. The main concept of the Habits Crew is to find simple conditions to force you to do more Behavior even though the Reward is hard to measure until it has accumulated. One of their main ideas is “habit stacking” where you take something you already do and attach a habit to it.
Some examples from BJ Fogg:
“After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.”
“After I flush the toilet, I will do two push-ups”
The first one seems reasonable. But why on earth would you be doing push-ups in the bathroom?
But I suppose habit-stacking is not the craziest thing in the world. There is no reason you can’t stretch while watching TV. There’s even a stretch called the couch stretch. If you remind yourself to do this every night, this can become a habit. I decided to force myself to write this blog every morning before I checked the news or Twitter. It’s sort of become a habit. It is definitely not second nature to me. It still requires a ton of effort. But I guess we can check in next July to see if I’m a 38x better blogger.
The conflation of increased behavior with increased capability is a leap. And, moreover, we know that capability saturates (because of an exhaustion element). Rates of behavior must saturate as well: there are only so many hours in a day to stack habits together. But is there an element of “fatigue” in operant conditioning? Do its dynamics resemble fitness-fatigue?
I don’t have a clear conclusion on this yet. But let me try to dive into more serious literature and see if we can get somewhere in the next few blogs.
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