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.

“Habit” probably requires 2-3 months minimum, depending on the *intrinsic perceived value* to the individual (i.e. to their UCM!). Example: Teenager views car as highly desirable “superpower” toward independence, etc., hence will be extremely motivated to learn, and keep going even past initial awkwardness & disappointments.

4) To get a sense of the degree to which Myelination affects performance AND internal mental state, watch this short video of the “Cup Stacking” champion kid – both as to his speed, effortlessness, and near total tranquility of his mind during the process as opposed to a beginner. This is what most Skill / Talent ultimately looks like and is based upon.

5) Myelination explains your “Small Victories” approach usefulness, because it keeps you going and repeating, avoiding the trap of too much disappointment or punishment “extinguishing” (in Behaviorist parlance) your behavior (initially really just your desire for the behavior).

(Too-)Big Goal -> Failure -> Abort.

6) The Human Mind (in greatly simplified terms) can be thought of as a relatively simple 2-stroke engine in terms of Dopamine -> the powerstroke that provides movement/”motivation”, and then Serotonin as the return stroke that makes youy feel successful / valued / loved (by your “tribe”/”ingroup”), and provides for the next Dopamine push. Without the Serotonin/success part, the feedback loop is interrupted, the engine stalls. (Yes, there can be other “feel good” Neurotransmitters in play, some of which may be even more immediate, and more fluctuating. Let’s keep it simple.)

You were mostly correct on Dopamine [note: many people including supposed experts still associate it too much with “Reward/Pleasure”, when it is in fact the Seeking neurotransmitter], and I would highly recommend the points made by the great “Sapolsky on Dopamine” lectures available on YouTube.

Specifically the point about maximum Dopamine occuring at *perceived* 50/50 odds of success, while low odds lead to low motivation, as do somewhat surprisingly too-high odds (basically: Boredom represents lowered motivation as a denfense against Local Maxima!?). At that level, we give maximum effort, but to get there we have to first get to those odds!

7) Arguably, the ever-changing (and plausibly most often representing a form of Sensory Deprivation…) task landscape of Modernity leads to a lack of easy-to-lock-in tasks vis-a-vis most of human/pre-human history. And the pay-offs that were supposed to come from our immediate environment become ever more remote, if they come at all… so the Dopamine/Serotonin feedback loop “hangs” much of the time. You can learn how to write the same blog post over & over, you can’t quite myelinate/”burn in” writing a totally different one each time.

8) Risk tolerance [to new task failure] is indeed very low, and hence Self-Efficacy very fragile, because we are most likely programmed this way from Evolutionary Psychology: It made all of the sense in the world for 100s of thousands of years… Why risk completely new taks when there is no near-immediate payoff? Who’s got time/energy for that?

Arguably, even in later “developed” human history, it largely takes the guidance of prior-task-success-full elders/role models to guide/coax/threaten us through the “uncanny valley” of getting to and then past 50/50 odds and Max. Dopamine. Serotonin needs to stay high, and love/value of the group needs to be assured through various mechanisms to get your UCM to fire up the Dopamine.

[Aside: This is one of the reasons why I view the Archetype of the “Wise One” Wise Old Wo/man as one of the guaranteed elements in the “Tribal Mind Firmware” formed by the dozen or so “core archetypes” I use for my Archetype Matrix Branding process. For tens of thousands of years they were in fact those “wise to” (= knowledgeable of) key information including novel technologies such as making fire, hunting techniques, and related topographical knowledge, all handed down by oral “tradition”.]

Self-Efficacy is fragile because the initial, predictable “head into the wall” new task failures will otherwise begin to lower your Serotonin enough to send you down into a Depression feedback loop. Self-Concepts begin to take a hit very rapidly as you point out, and are not easily replaced or “disposable”.

9) Self-Compassion can/could be a mitigating key, though it sadly does go against our natural instincts: It would make a lot of sense to allow for failure, realizing the Myelination issue and its inherent trap of MINUS Serotonin leading to MINUS Dopa. So just allow time to push past this point and get to minimum acceptable competence.

But nearly every bit of our Pack/Band/Tribe social belonging schema focused on Shame & Guilt programming goes against this, as does the fact that (my theory) Higher Status (= Higher Serotonin, Higher Testosterone, etc. states) *downregulates* Empathy in predictable, Evolutionary Psychology-planned ways: It is likely overall better for the lead animals (and from there on down the pecking-order) to not constantly question *their own* standing, and better for anyone below the top few spots to cooperate more.

So if you’re setting out with reasonably high-ish status and/or Self-Efficacy, you may well be in a poorer position to practice self-empathy!?

10) An example of where the Myelination habit-forming has worked for me of late (and in part due to this post and my initial notes I’ve been monitoring extra closely), is re-learning to play Tennis: Initially extremely frustrating, but some “Myelination-savvy” self-compassion & some self-perceived incentives like “Well, this is a form of exercise and fresh air regardless”, along with the occasional early successes made immediately visible (even if just 10% of the time say) have moved me to a place of beginnings of mild competence over a timeframe of about 8 weeks, and maybe as many outings.

I can now feel the most basic aspects firing away on “auto-pilot”, and focus in on special technique aspects. Things have mentally also slowed down enough that I can tell whether a shot is going to work or not even as I set up for it, asf.