“The Holy Grail of Self Improvement” – found…?

In his excellent Ribbonfarm guest post “The Holy Grail of Self Improvement”, Tiago Forté of Forté Labs wrestles earnestly and at times brilliantly with the deeper questions of human motivation, prompting this comment response from me in which I sketched out some of the psychological framework I’ve been thinking about in recent months and years that can supply a solution to these age-old questions. Here is my comment reproduced in full with minor edits for stand-alone post readability:


I had been meaning to chime in on this for quite a while, and never quite found the time to go past a few bullet point style notes I had scribbled down, but since no one else had raised a few key missing points, here they are in raw/unedited form…

1) Solid post on many of the surrounding concerns, and kudos for keeping it balanced on Freud vs. Mainstream (post-1950s-ish) Psychology. While Freud was wrong about a lot of things, he was also right about some important ones, at least in the aggregate, specifically the overall role of the Unconscious.

Worth pointing out that he got many of the intial perspectives from the French Psychiatrists using Hypnosis at the Salpetriere hospital in Paris in the late 19th century, but was himself never that adept at the processes, hence his approximation of trance states by way of “Free Association” lying on the proverbial couch (made easier by the therapist sitting behind the client, and her voice thereby appearing disembodied).

Ultimately, all Getting Things Done (GTD) is about alignment of Conscious Mind plans/goals, and Unconscious Mind (UCM) readying of resources, and the many largely unconscious activities it performs in service of such a plan. You pointed toward this with the 2006 Meta Analysis quote:

[ The upshot is that by accepting that habits, as emergent patterns, cannot be directly programmed to achieve certain goals, we are led to an uncomfortable conclusion: that despite being partially defined in terms of future intentions, habits cannot be designed and executed strictly according to upfront intentions. This conclusion neatly sums up the current state of affairs in our understanding of behavior change, as summarized by a 2006 meta-analysis: “Across dozens of studies on behavior change interventions, researchers have found that the conscious mind’s sincere, concerted intention to change behavior has little relationship to actual change in behavior.” ]

2) Much of the talk about habits remains rather nebulous without a foundation in a substrate, which we actually DO have in the form of Myelination = the coating of much-used Neural Network pathways with fats to act as a sort of “electrical tape” insulation (forming the “White Matter” of the brain), speeding up firing/propagation by up to a factor of 200x if I recall correctly.

So I was surprised to see it brought up nowhere in the post or on the thread. Myelination is an ongoing, steady process based on behavior frequency, duration, & repetition. At the outset of a totally new learning task, there is none, and every single action feels slow & painful (like at first learning how to drive). Then a very light “coating” begins to stabilize things, but more in the sense of “tender green shoots”.

With time/repetition, the coating will thicken, and the learning solidify, performance speed up greatly, and likely also some additional synaptic density be formed (= more Grey Matter volume in the responsible areas), though we can ignore this last part here.

3) So in some ways the whole game is to allow Myelination to set in completely enough to “burn in” the tasks/skill/learning without first running out of Dopamine/motivation to keep going. 2-3 weeks is near the minimum time, but that doesn’t guarantee that things will not get “stripped back down” if the behavior is not pursued further.

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Why Creating A New Habit Is So Hard

Leo Babauta of ZenHabits.com recently writes in his post The Habit Change Cheatsheet: 29 Ways to Successfully Ingrain a Behavior:

3. Do a 30-day Challenge. In my experience, it takes about 30 days to change a habit, if you’re focused and consistent. This is a round number and will vary from person to person and habit to habit.

Often you’ll read a magical “21 days” to change a habit, but this is a myth with no evidence. […] A more recent study shows that 66 days [may be] a better number […] But 30 days is a good number to get you started. Your challenge: stick with a habit every day for 30 days, and post your daily progress updates to a forum.

The reason why it takes at least around 30 days to form a new habit is a process in the brain called “myelination”.

It’s the process of your mind forming a certain kind of sheathing around the neurons involved in a habitual thought or behavior, which acts in a way like electrical insulating tape: It makes the electrical impulses travel faster, thereby speeding up the functioning of the entire neural network involved.

Myelin is a whitish substance that actually gives the brain its typical color. Now before your eyes glaze over about this Brain Biology 101 stuff, think about why this is so important for all manner of changing old behaviors into new ones:

When a mental block of any kind is released, or an old way of doing things is unhinged, the new neural network connections that formed to make this happen are extremely tender at first. “Green shoots” are rock solid by comparison.

This is why a new behavior feels so difficult at first: It isn’t ingrained yet.

Due to the lack of the myelin the signals are traveling slowly and precariously. But if you keep at it and thereby keep tracing the new path, your mind will get the message and “grease the groove” of that neural network. Until the speeds are up to 200 times faster!

Only problem is, it takes at least 30 days to complete myelination to the extent that the new habit is really starting to become a habit. Anytime before then there is the danger of the new habit formation being abandoned. And of course, the myelination process may continue for quite some time after the first 30 days.

So to be successful, you absolutely need to tough out those first 30 days. Set yourself up to practice the new habit during that time, despite the fact that it will seem too hard.

One of the strategies for doing so is to create physical changes in your environment that make it nearly impossible to ignore the new situation, e.g. recently when I wanted to stop falling asleep on my favorite couch at night watching TV, I laid a chair on that couch to block it. Did the trick instantly.

I also quit caffeine cold turkey a few weeks ago (more on that in another post), and the first step to make that happen was getting rid of the coffee paraphernalia in my kitchen, and replacing them with great herbal teas I like, asf.

Also, your Unconscious Mind is typically most impressed with actual, physical changes in the environment. No amount of lists, affirmations, or even visualizations will have as much of an impact as the new thing staring you straight in the face.

Put it in your own way. Make it impossible to ignore.

Get over that first 30 day hump, and you are basically home free. It’s like a rocket launch, most of the fuel is burned up to reach escape velocity. After that you’re cruising.

Simply knowing that this is the case should increase your chances of success, because now you can plan for it. New habit formation resistance is to be expected.

Beat it to the punch. By understanding the myelin between your ears.

(UPDATE: Just found this fascinating and detailed discussion of myelination on Google Books Search: The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. – Daniel Coyle.)