Habit reduces choice — and that’s a good thing

Today’s world is one of snowballing choice. We can choose from hundreds of restaurants each with tens of menu items, delivered to our doorstep. We can select from many lifetime’s worth of TV shows and movies and watch them on our laptops, our phones, and our smart TVs. Even a quick trip to the corner convenience store to buy toothpaste requires you to choose among a shelf of brands. Then to choose your payment method. Credit or cash? Apple pay? Do you have a loyalty card? Do you want to open one now? How about a store credit card?

Don’t even get me started on the choice porn that is Starbucks.

We know that choice is generally a good thing. It means freedom and opportunity and hope. The more education we receive, the more developed our society, the more relationships we have, the more choice we’re given.

But we also know each decision comes with a cost, a kind of psychic debit card. That cost has many names: Information overload. Decision paralysis. The paradox of choice. Willpower depletion.

So how do we balance this ballooning universe of choices with a decision making process that is both efficient yet effective, disciplined yet open minded?

After we make a decision, how do we stay committed through the inevitable waves of doubt and second-guessing as we’re presented with yet more related decisions, and as we see the outcomes of people who made different decisions?

Habits are the answer.

Habits are one of our oldest and most reliable technologies. Human brains are literally wired to act out of habit.

Let habits decide for you.

If your habit is to wake up before 7am every day, then your body won’t let you stay out late, night after night.

If you’ve been a vegetarian for years, you actively avoid fast food restaurants. The burgers aren’t appealing.

If your habit is to spend time with your kids when they return from school, then those afternoon hours become sacred to you. You don’t think about working during them.

Habit reduces choice. In fact that may be its primary job.

When your habit is to eat a piece of fruit and a yogurt each morning, you don’t spend time and willpower to think about breakfast. You know what you’ll eat when you wake up, and you eat it, and you don’t second guess your meal when it’s done.

When you wear the same type of outfit every day, say a black turtleneck and slim blue jeans, you don’t spend willpower points and arouse anxiety when choosing your clothes. Maybe the clothes have been laid out the night before. You go straight to the pants and shirts you’ll wear and you put them on without hesitation.

When you head to spin class every Tuesday and Thursday at 7pm, you know what you’ll be doing at that hour. Your schedule clears itself, and you don’t hem and haw as the hour approaches. Your mind expects it. Your body craves it.

Of course you still need to choose and then forge the right habits. That is hard or very hard, depending on the particular habit. It requires patience and persistence and pain. Every step forward can start to feel smaller and smaller until you hardly feel like you’re moving at all. But you are. You’re just making progress on a different level, a less conscious one, but a more permanent one.

After enough repetition, one day you will perform your habit – whether it’s reading a literary novel at night, or kissing your wife before she heads to work, or going for a long walk after dinner – without thinking about it. You’ll finish the task and only then will you realize what you were doing. And it will feel great.

That daily walk after dinner, for example, removes ten decisions you’d otherwise need to make. Without it, you’ll find yourself asking: What do I do after dinner? Watch TV on the couch? Read a book? Or maybe I should exercise. But what type of exercise? Go to the gym? Head to krav maga class? I’m tired though. It’s been a long day. Should I do it anyway? Ugh.

Choice is like the stuffing inside a burrito. It’s the filling. It’s the flavor. Without it a burrito would be tasteless.

Habit, meanwhile, is the tortilla wrap that keeps the whole thing together. Habit gives us shape and structure. The stronger and sturdier the wrap, the more meat and rice and beans you can add into the burrito, and the easier it is to eat.

So build good habits now. Construct them slowly and steadily over months and years. Let them grow into reliable pillars, to stand you up and hold you firm. Let them make good choices for you.

The power of group singing: Why we should make music together and not just in Church

My favorite part of church is the 10 or 15 minutes before every sermon where the congregation sings together. It’s fun and unique and moving to sing beautiful songs with a big group of strangers.

Church music has shown me the power of creating music with a collection of friends and strangers. Group singing is just not something we get in our normal lives. Maybe if you’re lucky enough to be part of a chorale or a capella group or have a band. But even in these situations, the focus is more on the quality of the performance, and less on connecting with those around you and expressing an important message.

Sometimes such experiences happen serendipitously. For example, you’re at a concert and the crowd’s singing along and the vibes are right. Or you’re on a long road trip when suddenly a song comes on that everyone likes and hasn’t heard in years. But those are the exceptions, not the norm. Church tries to turn group music into a habit, one with a bigger purpose.

Why don’t we sing more in everyday life?

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.

Paul and Silas were two Christian disciples thrown in jail for preaching their message to the wrong crowd. In jail they sang in worship together, and through the power of song they inspired other prisoners and converted the jailer to their still emerging Christian faith. The parable of Paul and Silas demonstrates the power of song in early Christianity. In the words of T.L. Cuyler, “The best days of the church have always been its singing days.”

I talk about Christianity because relatively speaking, it’s the faith I know best. But group music and group singing are by no means limited to Christians.

Devout Muslims worship aloud five times a day, in unison and with rhythm. The effect is profound and a form of group harmony.

The Qu’ran itself is a deeply musical text. Those who have memorized the whole of the Qu’ran and can perform it aloud are admired and praised. In Iran, such reciters – called hafiz – are awarded automatic university degrees. The sound of the performance is as musical as any concert I’ve been to. Here’s an example:

In Hinduism you have mantras and kirtan, devotional songs meant to be repeated in unison. Here’s a video of Ukranians performing Kirtan together at a local Hindu festival:

To this uninformed gentile, group music seems to be a common aspect of Jewish weddings and bar / bat mitzvahs.

Sikhs have their own form of musical melody called raag.

And all of this is just from a few hours of searching Google and reading Wikipedia. I haven’t even touched the surface, let alone scratched it.

That isn’t to say that every religion incorporates group music into its canon

To be fair, there are religious and spiritual traditions where music is not only absent, but sometimes expressly forbidden.

In Orthodox Judaism it is thought that a woman’s singing voice is immodest and thus Orthodox men should refrain from listening.

In Buddhism, given the Buddha’s emphasis on abstention and simplicity and calm, music is seen as a more sensual and arousing aspect of human culture and thus an activity that should be conducted modestly or altogether avoided.

As long as they live, the arahants abstain from dancing, singing, music, watching shows, wearing garlands, beautifying themselves with perfumes & cosmetics. – https://dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?t=21054

But like the other major religious traditions, within Buddhism there are differing views. For example in Tibetan Buddhism, there are mantras and group chants and singing bowls such as the one below that are used for meditation and relaxation.

I haven’t even mentioned group music in lay culture. From garage bands to college a cappella groups, from Coachella to happy birthday songs, people have sung together since music was invented by creative sapiens some 40K years ago.

Science now confirms singing’s many benefits. How it improves individual well-being. How singing, particularly in groups, helps us to lower our stress, improve our posture, and strengthen the immune system. But we knew all of this on a deeper, intuitive level.

Why is Church one of the few places where we can sing in groups – while sober – without feeling embarrassed?

Group music – playing instruments, singing songs, sharing a beat – should be an activity as frequent and accessible as going to the gym or grabbing a cup of coffee. Singing should be a habit: it not only heals us as individuals, but it connects and combines us into a greater whole. Which we need in these fast changing times.

And why should the music content be limited to religious or “purposeful” songs? In music, uplift and inspiration and beauty are everywhere. Even in the Billboard charts. Think of how emotional we get listening to songs from our adolescence: for me that’s Savage Garden and Matchbox 20 and K-Ci & JoJo. Think of how aches bubble up and hugs start to flow during 80s parties when Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ comes on. Can you imagine singing every week with a group of new friends to Elton John, or Mary J. Blige, or the Dixie Chicks? Doing this not only once a year at some blowout concert, but every week as part of a healthy habit and a social exercise?

The point is not to sound good. You don’t need a band or a celebrity or even good mics. Enthusiasm and energy are more important. The purpose is larger. Religion knows this, which is what separates it from most secular singing.

The point of making music together is to create a shared experience, to enjoy the music no matter age color creed or confidence level, and to use that experience to elevate us to a higher level of consciousness. That’s why song content – in particular lyrics and phrasing – is purposeful. The right words can heal us, whether we feel the pain of young love (like every Taylor Swift songs), or experienced recent tragedy (Brad Paisley’s Whiskey Lullaby), or struggle with money (Aloe Blacc’s I Need A Dollar).

Let’s make it happen.

I like to study the world’s religions (what Huston Smith calls the great wisdom traditions) for their wisdom, stories, and insights. Collectively I call this practice the “The Soul Habit”. You can read related posts here. Thanks for your time!

New additions to the Personal Bible: Warren Buffett, Robert Greene, and a Hacker News comment

I created a Personal Bible for myself so I could re-read and re-re-read my favorite essays, poems, and passages of text. Below are new additions including a snippet from a Warren Buffett shareholder letter, a raw and honest comment on Hacker News, and some small snippets from other writers that I like.

Here’s my latest version as a PDF. Hope one day you can create one for yourself!

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Warren Buffett’s 1989 letter to shareholders
http://www.berkshirehathaway.com/letters/1989.html

My most surprising discovery: the overwhelming importance in business of an unseen force that we might call ‘the institutional imperative.’ […] I thought that decent, intelligent, and experienced managers would automatically make rational business decisions. But I learned over time that isn’t so. Instead, rationality frequently wilts when the institutional imperative comes into play.

For example: (1) As if governed by Newton’s First Law of Motion, an institution will resist any change in its current direction; (2) Just as work expands to fill available time, corporate projects or acquisitions will materialize to soak up available funds; (3) Any business craving of the leader, however foolish, will be quickly supported by detailed rate-of-return and strategic studies prepared by his troops; and (4) The behavior of peer companies, whether they are expanding, acquiring, setting executive compensation or whatever, will be mindlessly imitated.

[…] After making some expensive mistakes because I ignored the power of the imperative, I have tried to organize and manage Berkshire in ways that minimize its influence. Furthermore, Charlie and I have attempted to concentrate our investments in companies that appear alert to the problem.

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I was the ambitious one, the one that strayed far from home, chasing the dream, getting caught up in the consumerism. I’m glad that by the age of 38 I have come to realize that I had everything that was important before I left. The remainder was a constant cycle of churn, want more, want bigger, want better, want newer, want more convenient. Except it’s hard when it’s being fed to you every day by every billboard, every sign, every menu, every advert, every press release, every news story, every TV show to differentiate between want and need. When you stop to analyze what you actually need – I mean really need: Clean air, clean water, shelter, nutrition, sanitation, family, community, companionship; how much of what you’re being sold every day is truly “needed” and how much of it is a want to fulfill some notion that has been sold to you by the media? – a Hacker News commenter

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David DeAngelo: Prove to yourself over and over that you can cope with rejection

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From Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power [Amazon]

Law 28: Enter Action with Boldness
When […] entering any kind of negotiation, go further than you planned. Ask for the moon and you will be surprised how often you get it.

Gandhi and Ramakrishna

Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of non-violence and Sri Ramakrishna’s testimony to the harmony of religions: here we have the attitude and the spirit that can make it possible for the human race to grow together into a single family–and in the Atomic Age, this is the only alternative to destroying ourselves. – Arnold Toynbee

I don’t think of myself as a violent person, but I have had loose and embarrassing moments. And I have always looked upon pacifism as a mindset for the weak. Yet the more I am in the world, the more Toynbee’s quote reveals itself to be not only true but necessary…

A History of God by Karen Armstrong: “Yet it should be obvious that the imagination is the chief religious faculty.”

A History of God is a heavy book. Not just as a result of its sweeping subject matter – the origins and evolution of Judeo Christian religion – but also because of the author’s brilliance. Karen Armstrong knows so much about religious studies and spiritual history and can’t help but share it in its nuanced glory with readers. For learning’s sake, I’ve shared some of my favorite excerpts below.

Here’s the Amazon link. And here’s a running list of books I’ve finished, by month.

The Faylasufs did not believe that you had to convince yourself of God’s existence rationally before you could have a mystical experience. If anything, it was the other way around. In the Jewish, Muslim and Greek Orthodox worlds, the God of the philosophers was being rapidly overtaken by the God of the mystics.

Today many people in the West would be dismayed if a leading theologian suggested that God was in some profound sense a product of the imagination. Yet it should be obvious that the imagination is the chief religious faculty.

Reformers like Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), founder of the Society of Jesus, shared the Protestant emphasis on direct experience of God and the need to appropriate revelation and make it uniquely one’s own. The Spiritual Exercises which he evolved for his first Jesuits were intended to induce a conversion, which could be a wracking, painful experience as well as an extremely joyful one.

The Greeks had used the Trinity as a means of holding the mind in a state of wonder and as a reminder that human intellect could never understand the nature of God.

The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, seemed to suggest that there were three gods. Schleiermacher’s disciple Albrecht Ritschl (1822–89) saw the doctrine as a flagrant instance of Hellenization. It had corrupted the Christian message by introducing an alien “layer of metaphysical concepts, derived from the natural philosophy of the Greeks,” having nothing at all to do with the pristine Christian experience. Yet Schleiermacher and Ritschl had failed to see that each generation had to create its own imaginative conception of God, just as each Romantic poet had to experience truth upon his own pulse. The Greek Fathers were simply trying to make the Semitic concept of God work for them by expressing it in terms of their own culture.

Atheism had always been a rejection of a current conception of the divine. Jews and Christians had been called “atheists” because they denied pagan notions of divinity, even though they had faith in a God.

C. G. Jung’s (1875–1961) God was similar to the God of the mystics, a psychological truth, subjectively experienced by each individual.

…despite his advocacy of a compassionate ethic, Schopenhauer could not cope with human beings and became a recluse who communicated only with his poodle, Atman.

Freud had wisely seen that any enforced repression of religion could only be destructive. Like sexuality, religion is a human need that affects life at every level.

Islam, however, is a religion of success. The Koran taught that a society which lived according to God’s will (implementing justice, equality, and a fair distribution of wealth) could not fail. Muslim history had seemed to confirm this. Unlike Christ, Muhammad had not been an apparent failure but a dazzling success.

…ardent young socialists such as David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973) simply packed their bags and sailed to Palestine, determined to create a model society that would be a light to the Gentiles and herald the socialist millennium. Others had no time for these Marxist dreams. The charismatic Austrian Theodor Herzl (1860–1904) saw the new Jewish venture as a colonial enterprise: under the wing of one of the European imperial powers, the Jewish state would be a vanguard of progress in the Islamic wilderness. Despite its avowed secularism, Zionism expressed itself instinctively in conventionally religious terminology and was essentially a religion without God.

Science has been felt to be threatening only by those Western Christians who got into the habit of reading the scriptures literally and interpreting doctrines as though they were matters of objective fact. Scientists and philosophers who find no room for God in their systems are usually referring to the idea of God as First Cause, a notion eventually abandoned by Jews, Muslims and Greek Orthodox Christians during the Middle Ages.

We must do without God and hold on to Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel was “the good news of a free man who has set other men free.” Jesus of Nazareth was the liberator, “the man who defines what it means to be a man.”

In brilliant studies of Dante and Bonaventure, Balthasar shows that Catholics have “seen” God in human form. Their emphasis on beauty in the gestures of ritual, drama and in the great Catholic artists indicates that God is to be found by the senses and not simply by the more cerebral and abstracted parts of the human person.

Leibniz: “Why are there beings at all, rather than just nothing?”

Unless politics and morality somehow include the idea of “God,” they will remain pragmatic and shrewd rather than wise.

The God of Jews, Christians and Muslims got off to an unfortunate start, since the tribal deity Yahweh was murderously partial to his own people. Latter-day crusaders who return to this primitive ethos are elevating the values of the tribe to an unacceptably high status and substituting man-made ideals for the transcendent reality which should challenge our prejudices. They are also denying a crucial monotheistic theme. Ever since the prophets of Israel reformed the old pagan cult of Yahweh, the God of monotheists has promoted the ideal of compassion.

From the very beginning, God was experienced as an imperative to action. From the moment when—as either El or Yahweh—God called Abraham away from his family in Haran, the cult entailed concrete action in this world and often a painful abandonment of the old sanctities.

When Christians are dismayed by such scientists as Stephen Hawking, who can find no room for God in his cosmology, they are perhaps still thinking of God in anthropomorphic terms as a Being who created the world in the same way as we would. Yet creation was not originally conceived in such a literal manner. Interest in Yahweh as Creator did not enter Judaism until the exile to Babylon. It was a conception that was alien to the Greek world: creation ex nihilo was not an official doctrine of Christianity until the Council of Nicaea in 341. Creation is a central teaching of the Koran, but, like all its utterances about God, this is said to be a “parable” or a “sign” (aya) of an ineffable truth.

The mystics have long insisted that God is not an-Other Being; they have claimed that he does not really exist and that it is better to call him Nothing. This God is in tune with the atheistic mood of our secular society, with its distrust of inadequate images of the Absolute. Instead of seeing God as an objective Fact, which can be demonstrated by means of scientific proof, mystics have claimed that he is a subjective experience, mysteriously experienced in the ground of being.

Human beings have always created a faith for themselves, to cultivate their sense of the wonder and ineffable significance of life. The aimlessness, alienation, anomie and violence that characterize so much of modern life seem to indicate that now that they are not deliberately creating a faith in “God” or anything else—it matters little what—many people are falling into despair.