Triggers and Dopamine [en]

[fr] Deux idées importantes concernant la façon dont on fonctionne, particulièrement pour ce qui est de nos habitudes: les déclencheurs, qui appellent un comportement stéréotypé ou enregistré (une bonne ou mauvaise habitude), et la dopamine, qui lance plutôt l'appel du "reviens-y" que du plaisir, et qui s'active face à la nouveauté (ce qui explique que nos comportements un peu obsessionnels ou addictifs ne se soldent pas forcément par plus de plaisir).

As I have slowed down my work life for the end-of-year celebrations, I’m taking more time to read and write, something I want to keep going throughout 2010 and beyond.

These last days I’ve stumbled upon two interesting ideas that I’m adding to my understanding of how we change and why we do what we do — a subject of endless fascination for me.

The first is triggers and their importance in forming habits. I had never really thought of this until I looked at the new website 6 Changes. The idea here is that a habit is linked to something that triggers it. For example, feeling down and reaching for the fridge or the remote. Or putting your pyjamas on and brushing your teeth. Or getting up from a meal and doing the dishes.

In a way, this is something that FlyLady teaches you to put in practice by establishing morning and evening routines. (See the “Baby Steps” page on FlyLady for more similarity with what Leo explains in 6 Changes.) Creating routines is a way to have a series of habits where each one triggers the next.

I’m now keeping an eye open for triggers (think “API hooks” or “CSS classes” for the geeks out there) that I can build on to put in place new habits or replace undesirable ones.

I have a (minor) problem when I watch TV series, for example: I tend to watch one episode after the next more or less until I drop — I find it very hard to just watch one or two and be done with it. So I thought: “what could be the trigger here?” Obviously, the end credits of an episode. So, what I’ve decided to do now is pause the DVD, remove my headphones, get up and go to the kitchen or the bathroom when the end credits roll. Then I can go and watch the next episode if I want. See the idea? Clearly, I’m not building a new daily habit here, but using the idea of the trigger, a small first step, and incremental change to modify an undesired behaviour. Next step will be adding something more to “pause the DVD, remove headphones, get up” once that habit is established, which goes in the direction of helping me not dive mechanically back into my season, however fascinating it may be.

The second is the role of dopamine in relation to novelty. Dopamine is in fact not the “pleasure” drug, but more the “gimme more” one — it’s activated when we’re faced with novelty, and encourages us to come seeking it again. I’m not sure how I’m going to apply this to my daily life, but for me it’s important to understand that craving for something is not necessarily linked to pleasure in getting the something in question. In my opinion it explains why we can get stuck in compulsive behaviours (checking e-mail or iPhone being the most obvious) which do not make us really happy when we indulge in them — on the contrary, I know that I often end up feeling a bit empty when I’m stuck in a compulsion circle.

I find the last paragraph of the HuffPost article linked above very wise:

Given all of this, what can we do to prevent ourselves from becoming novelty-seeking zombies? The first thing is to simply become mindful of one’s use of media and devices. I find that one of the best things to do is to institute regular vacations from email. It usually takes a couple of days for the itch to check my email every five minutes to go away, and watching it happen reminds me just how obsessed I can become, but it also shows that it’s possible to lead a perfectly normal and fulfilling life without constant email access. Once we see that we can live without constant access to our devices, we can start trying to exert some control over device use in our daily lives. Evolution gave us the ability to overcome our urges, but we have to have the will to employ this control. One bit of good news is that we can improve our self-control with practice […].

Russell Poldrack

I think the most important thing that Russell says here is that technology is basically putting us in a position where we have to grow as human beings if we do not want to be slaves to our impulses. This is true in general, but once more, technology is magnifying and making apparent issues which are already there, but which might not have been that visible until now.

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A Quick Thought on Being Public [en]

[fr] Dans un monde où l'on est des personnages de plus en plus publics, s'adressant simultanément à des publics jadis séparés, on peut pour moi soit se réfugier dans la langue de bois pour ne heurter personne, soit se mettre les gens à dos en leur disant en face des choses qu'on aurait auparavant évité qu'ils entendent, soir jouer de l'équilibrisme en privilégiant l'honnêté exprimée d'une manière qui prend soin des sentiments des autres.

In these days of increasingly overlapping publics, I see three ways in which to deal with the fact that we are all becoming — to some extent — public figures, our multiple faces forced to come together as the publics they’re meant for also do:

  • go all tongue-tied and diplomatic, and dumb down your discourse so nobody can take offence or hear something they shouldn’t;
  • be an asshole, by saying things to people’s faces that one normally would keep for behind their backs;
  • walk the fine line of honesty and respect whilst expressing things in a way that cares for others’ feelings.

The third way, clearly, is the most challenging, but probably also the most rewarding from the point of view of personal growth.

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Bad With Faces, Good With Names [en]

[fr] Je suis très peu physionomiste mais dès qu'on me donne un nom, je sais exactement qui vous êtes. Pensez-y la prochaine fois qu'on se croise en vitesse quelque part, à une conférence par exemple!

I have a problem. I am really bad at recognizing faces. Really very bad. Bordering on hopeless.

This makes social occasions like conferences very difficult for me, because people keep coming up to me, saying hello, and though their face might seem familiar, I have not the slightest idea who they are.

Even with people I know, it’s sometimes difficult. My good friend Kevin Marks came up to me to say hi this morning, and it took me 4 excruciatingly long seconds to recognize him.

One might think that it’s because I meet too many people, or have too many people in my network, and can’t keep up. I’m happy to say it isn’t the case — I haven’t reached such a celeb status, luckily.

How do I know that?

I know that because the moment the person who just walked up to me gives me their name, I know exactly who they are.

I am deadly good with names.

That’s why I like conference badges.

The way I explain this to myself is that my “internal database” of people I know has an index on the name column, and not the face one. It’s as if I were “colour-blind to faces”.

I’m really good at remembering people, actually. I just need names.

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Writing: Desired Distraction [en]

[fr] Quand j'écris, j'ai besoin de m'interrompre, écrire un bout, repartir, revenir... De temps en temps je suis "avalée" par le processus d'écriture pendant un bon bout de temps, mais la plupart du temps le processus est bien plus fragmenté. Dès que les mots cessent de couler de mon clavier, je file vite quelques minutes faire autre chose. Je pense que mon cerveau travaille en tâche de fond pour préparer ce que je vais dire ensuite.

A topic I’m very sensitive to is multi-tasking. I stand somewhere in between the multitasking fanatics and those who point to it as the worst evil computers have brought us.

I’m very much aware of the benefits of the flow state, and how interruptions (what multitasking is all about) jerk you out of it. I’m convinced, though, that smooth and steady multitasking can in itself be an activity which can bring about a flow state (guess this would have to be demonstrated).

There are a certain number of things I have done to decrease interruptions in my daily activities: turn off e-mail (and other) notifications to almost nothing, put GMail in a different application than my browser, for example.

One activity during which I realised that I actively multitasked is when I’m writing. I write a bit, chat a bit, write a bit, fool around on the web a bit, write a bit, e-mail a bit… Every now and again I get sucked up and write-write-write, diving deep into it and coming out an hour later, but most of the time my writing process is more fragmented.

I realized that my brain needs the “off-time” between spurts of writing. Probably while I’m chatting or looking at my e-mail, my brain is preparing what I’ll write next in the background. When the words stop flowing to my fingers, I don’t stop and think hard to try to figure out what to say. I head out and come back a few minutes later. Sometimes I do this two or three times before I actually start writing again.

Basically, being distracted (or distracting myself) helps me write.

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