“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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