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To live forever, break habits (npr.org)
170 points by widgetycrank on Oct 2, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 34 comments

Interesting article. I liked it.

I think you could take his basic premise - "staying out of a routine and breaking habits makes life feel longer and time pass slower" - and expand on it to also achieve more worthwhile pursuits.

Instead of changing habits randomly, instead aim to always be at the threshold of your competence.

I've spent a few years looking into this, and the best thing I found for myself is aiming to always be at a 70% success rate on my daily, weekly, and monthly goals/targets. If I'm succeeding higher than 70%, I increase the difficulty level or add new challenges. If I'm below 70%, I scale back and pare down until I get to the essentials.

It's good, because I'm succeeding more often than not, but I'm always at the threshold of my competence. I think a lot of people set goals too low to get to 100%, or they get discouraged when they fall short of ambitious goals.

Me, falling a bit short is part of my life, so I'm always pushing and expanding, failure is part of my life and gets easier over time, and there's always new things. I'm about to add a new set of targets - either I'm going to start doing bodyweight exercises and set some fitness goals, or I'm going to take up drawing and make more art. Or both? I'm doing this to replace "surfing the internet" with either drawing/painting or bodyweight exercises/balance/martial arts as entertainment time. Thus, life stays fresh, new, exciting. And whatever my goals are for strength training or art, I'll be falling a bit short of them - which is to be expected and embraced, always on the edge and threshold of my capability. But still, a 70% success rate, which is encouraging and I'm succeeding more often than not. Wholly recommended if you haven't tried setting goals and targets this way - if anyone has questions on setting something like this up, feel free to drop me an email, I try to make myself pretty freely available to people working on achieving things.

Seems like an interesting idea to push into an education system.

This is concept behind harder versions of classes (e.g. honors, AP) where you can increase the difficulty level if you have shown you are capable. However, the timeline is too long. Perhaps content tracks that included advanced reading/homework assignments and exams could be used to keep students engaged.

Would embedding game-like achievements (next track unlocked, toughest unlocked, stump/teach the teacher etc.) be of benefit here or just a distraction?

Has anyone had experience with teachers/professors that use these concepts?

Good comment, yes, I've looked into this too. If you look at game design, incremental variable rewards are one of the most addictive possible things. Incremental means you unlock them gradually, and variable means you don't always get the same thing. That's why getting an awesome item in Diablo II was always more addictive than getting an awesome item in Baldur's Gate. In Diablo, you never knew what you were going to get and how valuable it'd be. In Baldur's Gate, the Hammer +3 was always with this guy, the dagger +2 was always buried down in the southeast tomb, etc.

Mixing variable and incremental rewards does increase addiction, which can be positive or negative. It's positive if you're harnessing it.

I think this could definitely work for teaching people things - one of the ways I learned how to type really fast was playing a text-based player vs. player game way back in the day. Getting semi-unrelated rewards (like you said next track, toughest unlocked, stump the teacher, or more commonly badges, ranks, points, etc) can be a massive boon to learning something. There's also the "head fake" element of teaching while not looking like you're teaching, which I got from Randy Pausch's Last Lecture (highly, highly recommended if you haven't seen it).

With all that said, I haven't found quite the right way to harness it in my own life. A lot of the tracking I do gives me a way to get numbers and feel good, but assigning myself badges or points seemed like a little more trouble than it's worth. Just setup and maintenance time of that systems seems like it wouldn't be worth it, but if someone else built a good one, I'd use it.

I've played with various software that tracks goals/habits/etc, but I keep coming back to minimalist, flexible stuff, that lets me do what I want with it. But I think sooner or later someone will build something that works well for either general education or other skills training, and I'd be all over that.

This video on Khan Academy's "Vision and Social Return" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRf6XiEZ_Y8) seems to be putting some of this into practice (requirement of 10 in a row with visual feedback). Also the feedback for the teacher (in terms of attention span and student proficiency) is amazing--it has to spread.

Interesting related article about goal setting also on the front page right now:


Pretty hard to get the benefit of variable rewards when you're giving them to yourself. The only way I can see this working is if you just go out and let life give them to you.

I think this is noble, achieving worthwhile pursuits. However, we cannot forget the value of play.

"We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing." --George Bernard Shaw

I've always liked §295 of The Gay Science where Nietzsche makes the distinction between "brief" and "enduring" habits:

"I love brief habits and consider them an inestimable means for getting to know many things and states, down to the bottom of their sweetness and bitternesses...

Enduring habits I hate, and I feel as if a tyrant had come near me and as if the air I breathe had thickened when events take such a turn that it appears that they will inevitably give rise to enduring habits...

Most intolerable, to be sure, and the terrible par excellence would be for me a life entirely devoid of habits, a life that would demand perpetual improvisation. That would be my exile and my Siberia."


I like that idea, habits as the basis of improvisation, and visa versa.

But, I believe it does pay to have some constants in life. Perhaps not a habit per se, but common theme to habits.

I would boil it down to this, keep learning new things all the time, whether it is a new language, taking pottery classes, learning a musical instrument, a piece of technology, gardening etc while keeping what is working intact. This is important. You need a solid base and comfort from where you can enjoy the learning.

The author went overboard with his cigarette and marriage suggestions.

"And a habit-free existence — as I wrote last week — isn’t really possible anyway. It would be an existence without expertise, and so a life without language or meaning."

I don't believe he's actually suggesting you get rid of all your habits (i.e. wife). He was just stating that habits make time pass quickly, and getting rid of them slows things down. But that doesn't mean we should get rid of them... just that we should realize and accept the tradeoff.

Sorry for being patronizing, but I went through a phase like this too: figured out that human life is dominated by habits, decided this was "the" problem, and resolved to live anti-habitually. It didn't work. I think the reason is human nature: we're creatures of habit. Not to have them would be not to be human.

Habits can supplant other habits, but even that is not subject to direct conscious control. There's an entire self-help literature around it, some of which is good, but it's easy to take it the wrong way and go down a superficial path.

My personal hypothesis is time is perceived to move more quickly the older you get because an hour, a day, a minute become smaller fractions of the time you've been alive.

EX: When you're 10, a year is 1/10th of your life, but when you're 60 it's only 1/60th. The magnitude of an additional year of life at 60 does not feel as great as it does when you're 10.

Perhaps it was tongue-in-cheek, but I'm not sure the "leave your marriage" advice has any backing whatsoever; in fact, it would appear to be quite the opposite effect on one's lifespan:


"Those who had been widowed were almost 40% more likely to die, and those who had been divorced or separated were 27% more likely to die. "

Overall, the article felt light on facts - even the title is even fairly linkbaity (live forever!). For an article on increased lifespan (with citations instead of hand-waving), this article is much better:


... those who had been divorced or separated were 27% more likely to die...

Than who? Would the people that died after a divorce have survived if they had stayed with their poisonous spouses? I doubt it.

That's an interesting question, yet seems somewhat difficult to study. Several studies show that couples in "hostile relationships" do heal slower than "healthy relationships" (fighting affects the immune system). But I haven't been able to find anything with data regarding immune responses in "hostile relationships" vs being single. Those in hostile relationships have already increased their lifespan, although the hostility was likely not present for the entire relationship.

It doesn't matter if it drops your lifespan; that was not the author's point. The article is about living longer not in terms of actual years, but in terms of less monotony. Regardless of other costs, ending a marriage certainly accomplishes such a goal.

Inspiring, but reality often doesn't play out this way. Eventually, trying new things wears you out and you stop appreciating them. Meanwhile there's a risk of increased stress from the neglecting activities that habits used to make easy, like managing your budget, brushing your teeth, and preparing cheap, tasty meals.

This is true, but the idea is to manage your habits. It's a gardening exercise. At any given moment you're trying to make certain things into habits so that they will run in the background, while breaking other habits so that you'll feel alive.

(But maybe not too alive: I can attest that it is certainly possible to exhaust yourself with an excessive rate of new experiences.)

Eventually, trying new things wears you out and you stop appreciating them.

I think that depends on the person. I certainly haven't found this to be true.

Even continually trying new things can become a habit. At that point, settling into a routine for a while might actually be a more novel choice.

Has no one here read Catch 22? One of the little commentaries in the book is one character who already figured this out- he insists on hating every second of life, because when you are miserable time goes by slowly.

Joseph Heller embodied this idea in Dunbar. When your life is in imminent danger, you can extend it a great deal by remaining exceptionally bored.

> Have you ever noticed that you can remember perfectly well what someone said to you, but you don’t remember exactly what words she used? Or perhaps you can recall what was said but not in what language it was said.

Whatever else the article may have gotten right, this is false for me. I can, essentially, play back an audio recording of what a person just said. It doesn't work as well on languages I don't understand, but the recording is still there, it just ends up corrupted quickly because it takes a lot more to remember full audio than a few words. Also, I don't think I've ever forgotten which language something was said in, even though I can understand both French and Japanese.

That said, I have certainly noticed that other people never seem to get the words right, even when repeating things someone just said and it always bugged me that they'd change the words to things I just said a second ago.

Sounds to me like you have a form of eidetic memory. That's a pretty cool ability to have. Being a lesser human, I'm lucky if I can remember what Mom told me five seconds ago. (I'm not exaggerating.)


I've seen that before, but it's not like the memories last forever and you can just carry a tape recording of everything you've ever heard or anything like that. I've never quite been able to do the same thing visually, though I've been able to form strong visual images for a very short time when concentrating.

That said, it has always seemed weird to me that people can't remember the exact words people just said and that they always seem to change them, if only a little.

Just smoke some cannabis if you want time to stop (interferes with your ability to filter perceptual information in a linear fashion--nevertheless one's own personal freedom to choose to do such a thing); the rest of us have jobs that require routines. Btw, don't pass the human species off as habitual, we are anything but in respect with the animal kingdom in its entirety (lack of a definite homeostasis in nature). With all that talk about measures, was there a mention of how spontaneity is to be measured? Breaking a habit just to find a new one seems frivolous. It seems to me one would have to be put in a truly unpredictable environment (such as the wilderness) to become less routine.

Is the goal of life is to make it feel as though it will never end? 'Ever hear a shop clerk say, 'I feel like this shift will never end'? They're not excited about it.

Have you ever known someone who can't seem to stick with a job, an interest, or a group of friends? Do you think they are happy?

I don't think anyone is yearning for a life that feels like it will never end. What we want is to have a quality life, and one means toward that is to invest in others over time. Oh yeah, and marriage is _not_ a comfortable safe habit. It is challenge worth fighting for.

Sounds like he is making a habit of breaking habits

I think the message is to have new experiences, ones that are odds with one's habits ideally, because the opportunity cost of habits is new experiences. I'd say you can do this by learning too, and one should pick exciting new experiences. Compress change.

That would be a meta-habit… does this also apply to meta-habits?

I have similar thoughts on cannabis. When high, I have the feeling that habitual actions are much more difficult and you become more self-aware when you fix something to drink for example.

The effect seems to vanish for people who consume cannabis every day however, the brain seems to adjust to the new state.

Whilst I was reading this article, I couldn't stop thinking of this:

"My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be." - George Costanza

"We live in a world of meanings, not words or sounds. We live in a world of arcs, not points."

This is fundamental; line signifies the points; or the line is the meaning of the points; as when you fit a line to points of observations.

This fact is built into our perception and into science as well because all observations are points and meaning is the line that passes through all points; and therefore all meaning is interpretation.

The title is unfortunate ("To live forever"?) but the article makes good points.

great, we can start by never returning to Hacker News again! See you never guys!

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