Breaking Free: How to Rewire your Brain

You have probably seen this all around you: people immersed in their phones, tablets and laptops. We spend a lot of time on-line. On the one hand the Internet offers a wealth of conveniences: information, entertainment and social contact are all literally under our fingertips. On the other hand, it disconnects us from the moment, our long-term plans and distant dreams. When was the last time you looked out a window and day dreamed away? When was the last time you worked on that one skill that required dedicated repeated effort? When was the last time you were on Facebook? Take a moment to ponder these questions.

Books have been around for a long time and have this same quality of immersing us in a different reality: the world created by the author. We all have the experience of being drawn into the elaborate worlds constructed by Tolkien, Rowling or Herbert. Yet, when you take out your mobile phone when you experience even a second of boredom it feels different. Instead of a deliberate choice it seems more like an itch that we need to scratch. Are we really choosing to visit that news site, to play that mobile game or to browse Twitter?

The reality is that many of these sites and apps are designed to keep you coming back. Designed, not as in ‘how they look’, but as in ‘what they do to your brain’. I do not mean returning to these sites as a deliberate choice, but as an addiction. We all feel it: the way we spend our time has changed profoundly in the last decade. We know something happened, but what actually happened and how does it work? There is actually a method to this and it consists of four steps.

Have you noticed what happens if you do not use Facebook for a while? You get an e-mail telling you that ‘your friends miss you’. It requests that you ‘please come back’. This is the first step: to trigger you. What do you do when you get that – obviously automated – e-mail? You take the second step: an action. You login to Facebook to catch up with what you have been ‘missing’. You read the posts on your news feed, you ‘like’ what others posted, you write comments, et cetera. For all this hard work you need something to keep going: the crucial third step is the reward.

To learn a bit more about rewards we have to go all the way back to the late fifties when researchers experimented with something called operant conditioning. They put pigeons in a cage with a small disc they could peck. Doing so would result in some food being dispensed. This way the pigeons learned that pecking the disc would result in something to eat. The researchers tried to find the most effective way to keep this learned behaviour in place. They found an approach that combines fast learning and ensures the behaviour sticks for the longest amount of time: the variable reward. Sometimes pecking the disc would dispense food and sometimes it would not. The pattern would not be predictable. In this variable case the pigeons quickly learned the pecking behaviour and kept going on with it for the longest amount of time compared to other approaches. A four minute look at this experiment and its implications:

Rewards come in three flavours. Firstly, the reward of the tribe: social rewards. Does it make you feel good when someone likes or comments on something you post on Facebook? That is the social reward in action. Secondly, there is the reward of the hunt. The best example of this is the feed. Consider that all social media offer some type of feed, usually arranged as a list of items. Not all of these items are equally interesting to you, some of them more so than others. It is this variation in relevance that makes the feed so successful. Why? Because you have to sift through the feed which gives you a variable reward. Already feel like a pigeon? This ‘list’ with items of variable reward is found in many successful Internet services like e-mail, news sites and search engines. Thirdly, we have the reward of the self: when you learn and master something, like when you play a video game. A four minute video further explaining reward types:

The reward is followed by the final step: the investment. This is when you fill out your profile, you post your own content, reply to comments, et cetera. The investment is what makes you want to come back: you put effort, and therefore value, into the service that you are using. This gives you a reason to come back. In fact, if you go through all of the four habit-loop steps repeatedly: trigger, action, reward and investment; you no longer need an external trigger. There is no need to show you a notification on your phone, or to send you an e-mail. Your trigger has been internalized. The habit-loop now starts with the internal trigger which is usually, but not always, tied to some negative emotion, such as: loneliness, boredom or ineptitude. When you feel these emotions you take your phone out of your pocket and open up Facebook, you go on-line to watch YouTube videos on your tablet, or play Bejeweled on your laptop.

About half the time you spend each day is on the habitual auto pilot. If you had to spend every moment consciously deciding what you should do from moment to moment you would probably turn mad. Hence, habits are highly efficient and not necessarily a bad thing. How useful they are depends on whether they align with your goals. Many people have a bucket list: a lists of things they want to do or achieve in their lives. Very few people have ‘posting ten thousand comments on Facebook’ as a high priority on that list, if at all. Yet, their habits lead them to work everyday on exactly that instead of other things high on their list.

Is there a way to change this? Can we do better? Can we rewire ourselves to work on those things we have high on our bucket list, things that are meaningful to us in the long run? Yes, we can. How? Start with identifying what triggers you. Maybe you feel lonely and therefore visit Facebook to get a social reward. Great, we now know that loneliness is your trigger. So, what if instead you call or visit a friend? This also gives you a social reward. This insight is key: identify your trigger, change your action, but keep the type of reward the same.

Another example: imagine that you are feeling bored, you whip out your mobile phone and play some game. Leveling up in the game gives you a reward of the self in the form of mastering the game. What if instead of taking out your phone, you picked up an instrument and starting learning a small part of a piece of music? Apply the same process: identify the trigger: boredom, replace it by a different action: playing the instrument, and get the same type of reward: mastery.

I am not saying that on-line resources like social networks, games and news sites do not have value or should be avoided at all costs, on the contrary: browsing social networks can be great at keeping you up-to-date concerning friends, co-workers and family; posting on such networks can be useful and lead to new insights – like I hope this post will do for you; playing games can be a fulfilling and relaxing pastime that takes your mind off the chores of daily life; reading articles on news sites is a great way to keep your knowledge fresh. However, it seems that few people have mastered the important skill of engaging in these more superficial activities in moderation.

Most of these activities, nice as they are to give us immediate satisfaction in the moment, do not give a deep sense of lasting fulfillment. That is usually because they do not require great skill or effort. The result is a negative emotion, like boredom, and moving on to something else that gives us the instant satisfaction we crave. In conclusion: working on long term goals requires planning, effort and dedication, but also brings fulfillment, meaning and happiness. It seems like a better idea to make working on those things the habits, and making superficial activities the exception.

If you want to get started, there are only three simple steps you need to follow. Firstly, take a moment to identify the habit that you feel makes you lose the most time. Secondly, think of the one thing that you always wanted to do or learn. Thirdly, rewire your habit-loop into working on that one thing. Remember: keep your trigger and reward the same, but change your action. Keep your new habitual routine in place, track your progress and notice the change over time.

Sources:

  1. Eyal, N. (2013). Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.
  2. Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change.
  3. McLead, S. Skinner: Operant Conditioning.
  4. Goldman, J. What Is Operant Conditioning?

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