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Using books to prime behavior

by ryan wong1 min read25th Jul 20208 comments

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My purpose for reading has shifted from "I want to learn this" to "I want to use this to prime my behavior".

After years of consuming psychology, business management and generally "how-to" books(as opposed to "what" books), I've learnt that I will only have gotten something tangible out of the book if it changes my behavior. If some of my mental framework(with regards to eg social interaction, persevering in hard workouts or challenging problem sets etc) shifts and I'm acting in a different way than before.

This works especially for biographies. When reading about someone I emulate, I tend to step into his/her shoes and adopt his/her mental disposition for a trait I'm weak in, or a similar problem I'm trying to solve in my daily life.

Problem is, this priming doesn't last for long. After a week or two the effects tend to be diminished. All the accumulated knowledge of "stand up confidently straight as if you were being pulled at the crown of your head by a string from the ceiling", or "the mind is like a muscle too, and can be trained by effortful focus" tend to fall prey to the forgetting curve.

This might be a sign that the knowledge has become unconscious, implicit. It would however be nice if I can consciously feel that I'm using it that so as to motivate further efforts.

One can used spaced repetition techniques to shift hard facts to long-term memory. My question is, how can a similar thing be done for soft skills and mental frameworks?

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You can use them for practicing techniques. Have cards which say: use X technique today. You need to actually do that rather than spend 1 minute thinking about it. Which is suprisingly hard. I suspect it works much better if you have some system to guide you in generating new ideas e.g. Zettlekasten. I suspect it could be even better if the method was incorporated into the software itself. Maybe create links between cards as well, and have some repititions where you explore the graph surrounding a card?

I'm also unsure if the spaced repition timings are optimal for drilling techniques. Does anyone know the relevant literature?

For skills, I created software that reminds me to practice the skill using spaced repetition.

When the skill comes up, the program prompts me to practice  that habit in one of a couple of ways:

  1. Mindfulness - I create a reminder about that habit that day, and use that to remember.
  2. Visualization - I use one of the "habit installer audios" I have to go through visualization exercises of me using the habit.
  3. Deliberate Practice - I create a specific period of time where I'm doing a bunch of tasks that specifically require that habit.
  4. Conscious Practice - I set aside like an hour where I find any excuse to use the habit.

This allows me to gradually get better at using the habit.

For mental frameworks, I do something I call progressive expansion in Roam Research. I use the Roam Toolkit to set different models on a spaced repeitition schedule. Then, instead of testing myself when they come up, I try to expand on them in one of the 4 following ways:

  1. Elaboration: How is this similar to other mental models I have?
  2. Distinctiveness: How is this different from other mental models I have?
  3. Application: How can I apply this mental model to things I'm doing right now? How could I have used it in the past?
  4. Questions: What questions do I have about this model?

This does two things. First, it ensures I'm creating new neural connections to the model, which means it will come up more in my thinking. Second, I'm creating new Roam links to the model, which ensures it will come up more in my Roam databse.

My own suspicion in these cases is that these techniques don't work and are unsustainable hacks that temporarily shift the equilibrium of my thought. Or perhaps they do work but the mind adapts to them (like drugs) and so they'll lose their usefulness. After all, I don't forget useful things that I commonly use. even when they become implicit knowledge, I can still feel that the implicit skill is there and see its results.