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The Limits of Habits

March 02, 2019

The Limits of Habits

Are there areas of life where the costs of efficiency gained outweigh the costs? Of course.

It’s just not a question that I ask that frequently about my life - I suspect I’m not alone.

We’re too focused instead on making habits working for us. We know The Power of Habits (by Charles Duhigg) and we strive to turn small Atomic Habits (by James Clear) into the engines that power our lives and enable our achievement of great things!

Is it possible that we’ve learned these lessons too well?

In an interview on Software Engineering Daily, Brian McCullough offered an example that demonstrated the potential limits of habits in a discussion of evaluating news.

I’m in the minority of this. Where people are gnashing their teeth about who can we trust - I think it was a weird world in my childhood where there were venues and you were going to trust CBS for sure and New York Times for sure, because they’re CBS and the New York Times.

That’s a passive sort of lemming state of affairs that everyones like, “Oh, the current universe in which anyone can have a megaphone, there’s no editors, there’s no validation, there’s no verification [is problematic].”

I’d rather live in this new world, because that old world is a passive media relationship. That’s a passive populace. Now, the problem is that, because for several generations we’ve been taught to be passive media consumers, it’s not easy to just turn the switch and say “Listen, now you have to be an actively discerning consumer of media.”

I love Joe Rogen. I listen to the Joe Rogen podcast every single week. I love that fact that he seems to be an intellectually curious, genuinely curious guy. He’s a seeker. But just because I love Joe and he’s proven himself to me doesn’t mean I should ever shut off. I should always be skeptical.

So, what you should do for all media is actively evaluate them, but then don’t stop. If this venue has proven itself to me to be reliable. I believe them to be accurate. I like their take. I like the way they do things. Fine.

But then the problem is that when people talk about others going into their bubbles - some people are only consuming news that validates their preconceived notions - that’s because people shut off. So don’t shut off.

Find a venue that you believe. Find voices that you trust. But then once they’ve won your trust, that’s not permanent. They have to earn it every single day. The problem is that a lot of people are not used to, haven’t been trained, and don’t know how to be sophisticated discerning media consumers. Just be smart about it. Don’t be one of the lemmings.

What Brian describes is an active participation in your daily life. No checking out. No allowances for habits. If it sounds hard - it’s by design. Brian’s imploring people to actively make their lives more challenging.

If you think about the power of information - the way it influences how we interact with and understand the world, this approach makes sense. Delegating our information consumption to habits is dangerous.

I’m reminded of President Kennedy’s speech announcing America’s intention to reach the moon by the end of the decade.

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too

We’ve known that there are areas of our lives that we choose to make more challenging because that goal brings out the best in us. As Brian argues, figuring out which sources of information are deserving of trust is such an area.

For me - it’s also been a reminder about the limits of habits.

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Stephen Weiss

Written by Stephen Weiss who lives in Chicago with his wife, Kate, and dog, Finn. Follow him on Twitter!