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Think of Your Choices as Effects, Not Causes

mini self

Imagine, for a moment, that you could see your own life from above, as though your home, neighborhood, and workplace were little dioramas with open roofs.

Your miniature self isn’t aware you’re watching, and exhibits all the habits you do. With a kind of embarrassed concern, you watch your hapless self wake up, hit snooze a few times, then sit up and read Reddit on your phone for twenty minutes (or whatever you normally do). You watch as you interact with the world, making some good decisions and some bad ones.

You’d learn a lot about yourself just from seeing your everyday behavior from the outside. How much time you actually spend staring at electronic devices. How you’re more argumentative than you thought. How often you cut your workouts short so you can get on with lunch. How you almost never clean behind the couch.

Now imagine you could intervene in subtle ways, not by making choices for your mini-self, but by changing the surrounding environment. You could move an object in a room your mini-self will visit later, maybe putting a bag of cookies in the cupboard that would otherwise be sitting out when you get home from work. You could position a birthday card where it might remind you to call your mother. You could quietly delete Reddit from your miniature’s phone.

Over time, small changes like these might be all you need to guide your mini-self to a significantly better life. None of them give your mini-self any more resolve or willpower, but they do set up a different succession of triggers throughout each day, each of which leads to predictably healthier behaviors, and a predictably better life. 

If each of us was given even two weeks of this kind of top-down management, it would change our view of self-improvement forever. Our consistently self-defeating behaviors, and the routines and triggers that lead to them, would become obvious. Without even trying, we’d notice dozens of places we could improve our lives, even without any gains in courage, skill, integrity, or any of the other qualities we associate with lasting improvement.

Ah, when I use my phone as an alarm clock, my day starts with browsing Facebook.

When I have a great day at the gym, I tend to treat myself to junk food later.

When I go for a drink after work, even if I leave early I tend to watch bad TV all night.

After watching your mini-self stumble in the same places repeatedly, and struggle to make the simple, healthy choices you want it to make, you’d begin to see self-control differently. It would become obvious that human behavior depends much more on unconscious routines and conditioning than it does on conscious intentions or resolve.

Your attitude at 5:30pm, when you ultimately decide whether you’re going to the gym, depends on many more factors than your desire to get fit. It depends on how your workday went, the tone of your last conversation at the office, what podcast you listened to during your commute, how you slept, whether you caught Rocky on TV the other day, whether it occurred to you this week that your father died early of heart disease, and countless other factors that aren’t being given credit for their role in whether you end up skipping your workout or not.

We attribute our successes and failures to choices—good choices make for a good life—and we tend to think of choices as causes, rather than effects.

But our choices have causes too. The choices we’re able to make are constrained by what’s going on in our heads at the precise moment the decision point comes up: our mood, energy level and expectations of success.

How often we can choose to do the healthy and productive things we want to do depends on our routines and lifestyles—conditions that are in place long before the decision moment arrives. Of course you usually skip the gym: given your current routine, you’re at your most worn down at 5:30pm, when the decision gets made.

The conditions simply aren’t there for a gym habit. Sometimes a surge of willpower can override the weariness, but it won’t be there every day.

If we could regularly see our lives from above, we’d probably move away from a “just do it” sort of self-improvement philosophy, where we believe character and resolve are the vital (but so often missing) factors.

Instead, we’d begin to see improvement as a matter working diligently on the causes of our choices, because there’s much more leverage to be found there.

Why did you skip Spanish practice Wednesday but not Tuesday? What was different? Were you cranky because you stayed up after drinking coffee too late? Did you feel rushed because you tried to get it over with before your show came on? There are clues here.

Does reading the newspaper first thing leave you feeling impatient and pessimistic—and conflicted about working on your side business? Do you tend to skip your Wednesday-night obligation half the time because it feels like an annoyance, given your overloaded Tuesdays and Thursdays?

Minor changes on this level can set up decision moments that are much more agreeable. We are capable of a lot more than we think, because we tend to mistake the limitations imposed by our routines and lifestyles as intrinsic personal limitations. (I just can’t stick to cardio routines—believe me I’ve tried.)

This is why high achievers so often have unconventional habits. Look how different many of their regimens were. Kafka did most of his writing in the middle of the night. Dickens insisted on several hours of exercise daily. Maya Angelou wrote in rented hotel rooms, not at home.

Clearly these people recognized the enabling and inhibiting effects of seemingly unrelated environmental details on their abilities, and spent a lot of time experimenting with them. Their eclectic routines didn’t arise by accident.

With intimidating goals, the common wisdom is “attack the corners”. But we tend to look for those corners only in the task itself: begin the book by beginning the outline, and begin the outline by jotting down possible topics. But maybe the book’s first step is changing your bedtime, to take advantage of more clear-minded morning hours.

Our choices are products of our mental states, which are products of the details of our lives. Nothing is disconnected. Good lives do come from good choices, but good choices need fertile ground to germinate.

Good self-improvement, then, resembles caring for the field more than planning the harvest. Or maybe that’s what planning a harvest really entails.

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Photo by JD Hancock

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Camp Calm registration opens next week

The fourth season opens for registration soon. Camp Calm is a simple, email-based program for establishing a small, consistent meditation practice in about a month.

It’s meant for people who:

1)      don’t know where to start

2)      have tried to meditate but find it difficult or confusing, or

3)      have never been able to do it consistently, for whatever reason

Click here to get on the mailing list if you might be interestedI’ll be sending out updates shortly after this post airs. As usual, mailing list people will get the first chance to register. (How does it work?)

 

Curtis February 19, 2017 at 10:56 pm

David, this was really good. I have really enjoyed your last several articles. I sense a renewed energy, sense of purpose. Very enjoyable reading. Bravo.

Curtis February 19, 2017 at 11:10 pm

This one meant a lot to me. I felt a sense of connection when you were describing the little things that make us feel a certain way, that put us in a certain mood or state of motivation or unmotivation. I would like to request a follow-up to this one, or maybe a series, describing how to set us up for all those effects. Shoot, there is much more here, I think, than Marie Kondo had for “Tidying Up.” I think you should make this a book. I would love to read it, and I think a lot of people would.

David Cain February 20, 2017 at 9:04 am

Thanks Curtis. I think the most important thing is just to start thinking this way, and often it’s obvious what would have put you in a better place to make better choices at critical moments. It’s going to be different from person to person anyway.

But there are universals too. A lifestyle that respects the body’s need for sleep and decent food is huge. Meditation greatly reduces patterns of reactivity and helps us let go of vices. And moving away from activities that make your blood boil (like reading the newspaper) unless you can see they have a benefit that outweighs the downside.

Julian Summerhayes February 20, 2017 at 2:40 am

As Einstein said, “Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wants.” In that sense, if you go to the root of any decision, you’ll quickly realise that you are not in charge. Best wishes Julian PS. Have you read any of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Schopenhauer writings?

David Cain February 20, 2017 at 9:07 am

I haven’t really read any Schopenhauer no.

This idea can lead us to a rabbit-hole about free will and determinism. If choices have causes, then the choices that cause them also have causes, and that causality might go all the way back to the big bang. I’ll tackle free will in another post though.

Zoe February 20, 2017 at 3:30 am

Spot on, as usual. I really needed to hear this. After finishing a long writing project, my mind seems to have gone blank and my creative batteries are completely depleted. Whenever I do manage to struggle through and get some ideas, I can’t find any motivation or passion to pursue them. I’ve got to the stage where I realise I need to take care of myself a little for these things to come back on their own, rather than try to force them, but I’m still struggling to understand how I might implement this. This has helped a little bit.

On a sort-of related note, can people who did Camp Calm in the past take part in this one too?

David Cain February 20, 2017 at 9:16 am

Thanks Zoe. Motivation is an interesting conundrum. After all this time I’m not sure if it really exists, or if we attribute some of the inherent difficulty in creative work to an apparent “lack” of this mysterious quality. I do know that I often feel like I’ve I’m trying to get blood from a stone, but if I just stay at it, often something does come. So I’ve learned to be skeptical of the idea of motivation, and that skepticism has helped my creative productivity I think.

I will be inviting Camp Calm alumni back to participate again, but it will be at a heavily discounted price, rather than free — when it’s free the participation rate drops too much. I even sent 100%-off codes to quite a few people who didn’t even use them. An email will go out with details.

Chris February 20, 2017 at 6:26 am

I was just going to read the Power of Habit again. It’s a bit of a pop psych book, but it details the habit chain of events just like you do. You want to find out why you are doing that bad habit and then replace it with something that gives the same feeling. Thanks for the nudge!

David Cain February 20, 2017 at 9:17 am

I got rid of my copy and I kind of regret it. I figured it was too long to ever read it again. But a good skim would be worthwhile. The basic habit model in that book is really useful, and would be perfect for working with the concept in this post.

Seán February 20, 2017 at 9:35 am

A good four minute review of the book can be found here:

http://fourminutebooks.com/the-power-of-habit-summary/

In general this website is a good resource for me when I’m trying to determine if a particular book is something I want to read or not.

Andre Kibbe March 6, 2017 at 12:20 pm

Duhigg’s video case study of reprogramming his cookie habit contains about 90% of the book’s substance.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1eYrhGeffc

The Habit Loop model isn’t particularly complex, so it’s no surprise that a journalist would flesh out his exposition with enough stories form a 371 page book. This is the Achilles’ Heel of the publishing industry—overwritten books designed for higher perceived value when sitting on a bookshelf.

Aleisha February 20, 2017 at 8:17 am

Yes. It’s all about the habits that prevent the need to have to make an in-the-moment choice. I have found that tiny habits and hacks have made all the difference in my consistently choosing the good choice over the bad one.

David Cain February 20, 2017 at 9:23 am

The other good thing about tiny changes is that they’re easy to make, and you can see their effects quickly. You can do a dozen “tiny thing” experiments in the time it takes to try (and maybe fail) to implement a big sweeping change.

Mrs. Picky Pincher February 20, 2017 at 8:59 am

This is great advice to remember. I’ve been feeling “blah” lately, and I think it’s because I’ve stopped my exercise regimen. It’s hard because I suffer from migraines and the LAST thing you want to do with a horrible headache is run on the elliptical. But it’s all about doing what you can. I think I can start incorporating walks into my routine again. It’s all about creating time for positive habits instead of mindlessly submitting to unproductive habits.

David Cain February 20, 2017 at 9:26 am

In my experience a solid exercise routine improves just about everything. It’s one of the best returns on investment for time and energy.

Iza Bella February 20, 2017 at 9:57 am

This piece was great, as all your pieces!! As I was reading I could picture myself looking down on me going about my day. I had a baby a year ago, so I find myself highly unmotivated to do anything as a stay at home mom. The one thing I force myself do is go to the gym 5 days a week. It’s a struggle, as you mention, when 5 PM rolls around I do not want to go, but I go anyway. But this is the extent of my will. I hope I get out of this funk soon. Thank you for being an inspiration to us. I read every single post of yours. I am glad I found you <3

David Cain February 20, 2017 at 2:45 pm

Thanks Iza. Good on you for making it to the gym, even when it’s not the easiest thing in the world. It’s been such a crucial support in my life I can’t imagine how it would be without it. Best of luck experimenting with other details. Sometimes small ones make a big difference to how everything else fits in.

TheHappyPhilosopher February 20, 2017 at 11:42 am

This is simply brilliant writing David. This may be my new favorite article of yours. I’ll make my final decision during my next stroll through a parking lot.

David Cain February 20, 2017 at 2:45 pm

:D

Jeff February 20, 2017 at 12:03 pm

Beautifully said, David. Perfect timing for me. I have an incredibly difficult time sticking to my meditation habit, but notice when I don’t do it is because of poor choices the night before, or even earlier. Bad food, bad tv, negative people on Facebook, etc. It really is fascinating the effect that the seemingly insignificant can have. We are just sponges after all.

David Cain February 20, 2017 at 2:48 pm

In my experience, adequate sleep is a huge factor in getting to the cushion. Even twenty minutes more seems to make a big difference.

But the biggest difference came when I started sitting a second time, later in the day. That second session, even if it’s just ten minutes or so, makes the next day’s early session so much easier, which makes me resist the next one less, and so on. Meditating twice a day made it four times easier. YMMV but the difference was profound for me.

DI February 20, 2017 at 12:34 pm

THANK YOU FOR THIS. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I’m working on changing conditions to make success much more likely.

David Cain February 20, 2017 at 2:50 pm

Have fun experimenting. Often it’s kind of fun to see how different things become just by doing a regular task at a different time, or in a different way.

John Olaf February 20, 2017 at 1:56 pm

David,
This is a really good post. I think you are completely right about the situations we put ourselves in being bigger causes of success than we realize. I think this relates a lot to what MMM’s latest post about Happy Cities is about. Our cities, our selves, our environments contribute a lot more to our outcomes than we give credit for.
I’m trying to think and write more about this from a teacher’s perspective. How can I get this mentality into the classroom? Surely there is a connection between setting ourselves up for success and setting our students up for success. This makes me question maybe the order of lessons and activities. Interesting stuff to get me thinking.
Thanks!

David Cain February 20, 2017 at 3:01 pm

Our routines are connected to everything else: our work, our communities, our economies, our relationships, technology, and so on. Nothing is separate, which means we can affect the proceedings by acting on parts of life that don’t have and obvious connection to the thing we want to change. MMM has an engineering mind so he is very aware of these interconnected systems, and I think that’s one reason his stuff is so good. He has connected the nuts and bolts of personal finance to the details of personal well-being in a way I don’t think anyone else has.

Barbara February 20, 2017 at 3:27 pm

So, that was you, snooping behind my couch :-)

David Cain February 20, 2017 at 3:57 pm

Miniature me, maybe

Peter Akkies February 20, 2017 at 3:38 pm

David,

I loved your article, as usual.

One example of providing the conditions that came to my mind is getting enough sleep. You mentioned that deciding whether to go to the gym at 5:30 p.m. is putting yourself in a bad position to make that decision. I think the same goes for not sleeping enough.

I find that if I don’t sleep well, *everything* is harder the next day. I make poorer choices, knowingly, simply because a lack of sleep reduces the base level of willpower.

This is also why I often groan when I see people suggest that we should get up at 4 a.m. or some other ridiculous time to “do the most important things” before other people even wake up. That only works if you also go to sleep really early.

Anyway, thank you for another wonderful post.

David Cain February 20, 2017 at 3:56 pm

Totally on board with the adequate sleep train! It affects everything you do all day, and also your basic outlook. When you aren’t getting enough sleep life just feels suffocating, because obviously there isn’t enough time to fulfill your responsibilities the way they are. I would love to be a super-early 4am riser, because I am most productive then, but that would mean going to bed at 8 or 9, and I don’t know if I could make that adjustment.

Peter Akkies February 21, 2017 at 7:06 am

Do you think you’re most productive that early because of your biology, or because there are fewer distractions?

I think my circadian rhythm might resist—our bodies are wired to sleep when it’s dark out and to be awake when there is sunshine.

David Cain February 21, 2017 at 4:34 pm

I’m not sure… I suspect it’s because my work-avoidance processes have not had time to warm up yet.

Shannon D. February 20, 2017 at 5:59 pm

I love miniatures and this is an excellent way to make tasks miniature! I love this post!

David Cain February 21, 2017 at 4:36 pm

Oh well then you will LOVE Tiny Kitchen on youtube. They may tiny versions of food with real ingredients. It’s adorable:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQ9tqKkQ5rs

Alissa Condra February 20, 2017 at 6:16 pm

Thanks David!

Have you read Deep Work by Cal Newport? I’m reading it now and its absolutely in line with this and cites all sorts of scientific research and examples from incredible people who have set up their environments for success.

David Cain February 21, 2017 at 4:39 pm

Yes, this past winter, and I loved it. It really did improve the way I think about work, and I’ve implemented quite a few Deep Work prescriptions. It has been hugely helpful and is one of the reasons I’m publishing more often here. Great book.

Linda February 20, 2017 at 7:24 pm

So good. And not just because it’s not the same thing I’ve read 100 different times in 100 different ways. I never really thought about the root of why I’m not doing the things I so want to be doing. After reading this, today I really thought about it. The goals I didn’t meet today even though I did not have my usual excuse of being “to busy.” When I really thought about it, I lacked the motivation – why? I am still trying to get to the bottom of it, but I realize that asking and answering that question is what needs to happen before I start worrying about habit forming tips.

David Cain February 21, 2017 at 4:43 pm

It really helped me to just ditch the concept of motivation altogether. I find I just used it to explain my failure to do certain things without having to look for the real causes… “Oh I didn’t do it, I guess I just ran out of ‘motivation'”. It’s more helpful to think in terms on the specific causes and effects from our routines. Just moving something to a different part of the day can make it suddenly doable, even if there’s no more “motivation” added to the equation.

Kurt February 20, 2017 at 9:08 pm

Thank you for this, David. I enjoy all of your posts, but this one spoke to me in particular—as I’m sure it has and will for many others. The image of seeing yourself from above seems to encourage a gentle treatment of the little creature avoiding responsibilities and picking through Netflix aimlessly; it seems to encourage a friendlier treatment of yourself. It’s a beautiful way of seeing the self and all of our little habits and actions and reactions. Thank you for the image. And thanks for your newsletter!

David Cain February 21, 2017 at 4:44 pm

That’s a good point and I hadn’t really thought of it — you can’t help but feel a gentleness towards your hapless little miniature. Poor guy! Let’s make things easier for him if we can :)

rachel February 23, 2017 at 11:54 am

That was great, even if it is a bit creepy that you know about the non-cleaning behind the couch. You’re right, if you can change the environment a bit, you get different results, without having to scrape together much willpower.
(Incidentally, I did see myself from above for a few hours once, but this was chemically induced, and I confess to not taking advantage of the opportunity)

David Cain February 23, 2017 at 11:59 am

I think avoiding behind-the-couch cleaning is a universal human trait

Joel February 24, 2017 at 7:22 pm

David,

This article was fantastic. As you spoke, I envisioned myself looking at myself below. I pictured my daily routine and was not only able to pick apart the successes but more importantly the areas that I could improve on.

Thank you for this.

Joel

David Cain March 6, 2017 at 12:42 pm

Thanks Joel. For some reason just thinking of yourself from a top-down perspective gives you kind of insight about what is best (or at least better) for you.

Abhijeet Kumar February 25, 2017 at 6:53 am

Great post. That awareness of patterns and little changes add up and we can look back at the elegance of it. It takes patience and acceptance before we can live these beautiful changes.

Pipsterate February 25, 2017 at 9:31 pm

I think our behaviors are often shaped much more by our environment than by our internal characteristics. If more people understood this, perhaps they would have easier lives, and perhaps, more importantly, they would have more sympathy for those who don’t have such easy lives.

Dax February 26, 2017 at 8:58 am

This resonated with me “When I have a great day at the gym, I tend to treat myself to junk food later.” I substituted “junk food” with “beer.”

The approach makes sense. Even if one thing can be changed, you will come out ahead.

julia February 27, 2017 at 7:08 am

what am i missing on Reddit? must see!

;-)

Fleur February 28, 2017 at 1:36 pm

Thank you for this great article. I love the visual analogies you make, they help me remember ideas much better.

Vicki March 5, 2017 at 9:35 am

Yes, yes and yes! I recently picked up a book called Nudge which talks about how we can tailor the choices we present to people in order to improve their lives. It was a bit creepy at first but taken in the right way, as with your examples here it made a lot of sense. The earlier section of the book talked about cafeteria layouts in highschool leading to healthier choices.
You have presented a similar idea here but with the added cool visual of our miniature self. Add this to “future self” from an earlier article, and you have given us a lot of helpful ways to better ourselves.

I do often find myself thinking about future self because of your articles. It will be neat to see how often mini me gets in on the act.

I never finished reading Nudge… I think because I put it away on the bookshelf. If I strategically move it to the bedside table maybe I have a chance. What do you think?

Andre Kibbe March 6, 2017 at 12:39 pm

I made a similar comment a few minutes ago about The Power of Habit, but it applies to tomes like Nudge, The Paradox of Choose, Fooled by Randomess, etc.

Many books with simple concepts (however important) are overwritten, clocking in at 200 to 400 pages so that consumers feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. You’ve already expressed the core concept of Nudge, and having read the whole book myself, I can tell you that there’s not much else there besides numerous anecdotes along the same lines as the cafeteria layout. I sound critical, but I’m totally on board with the message of setting more productive defaults.

David Cain March 6, 2017 at 12:41 pm

Totally agree. There should be a lot more 30 or 50 page books, but I guess publishers don’t know how to sell them. I’ve learned to skim non-fiction books once they start to get repetitive to compensate.

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