Playing With Identity

Abstract: In this post I generalize the “go work to Starbucks because can’t concentrate at home” thing.

Bullshit test

Before reading any further, you can test whether whatever I want to say in this post is total bullshit or not by doing this:

  1. Think of a task you’re currently putting off, even though you shouldn’t.
  2. Open Google Maps and find a particular coffee shop/anticafe/etc. you’ve never been to.
  3. Go to that place strongly committing to only doing the particular thing you decided to do there and not get distracted either physically or mentally on other things. This means as little chatting with people as possible; no checking email (unless it’s absolutely needed); no checking social media; not doing anything at all that is not directly related to the task at hand.
  4. Notice how easy or difficult the task was to work on and how easy or difficult it was to not let yourself be distracted, compared to your usual environment.

My prediction: however off-putting and ughy the task is, there’s going to be close to none difficulty in concentrating on it and there will be no other issues that usually prevent you from accomplishing it.

Why this works?

Identity is what causes us to behave consistently across space and time. While it’s seemingly difficult to change arbitrarily, new locations, new situations, etc. are by definition things where no strong identity exists. Yet, most of the time, when we encounter unfamiliar contexts, we unthinkingly assume the default identity. This needs not be the case. New contexts present us with environments where the identity is highly malleable and with relatively little exertion of will you can conjure identites at will.

“I’m lazy”

I’m super lazy. Or maybe I’m not. I definitely am at home behind the desktop. I’m definitely not at work, where I committed to only doing work-related stuff from the very beginning. Speaking of “lazy” doesn’t make any sense, without first noting the context to which you want to apply it.

How to stop playing videogames/browsing reddit/etc.

Buy a new computer. Don’t do things mentioned above while using it. That’s it. It should be obvious already why this will work.

But won’t you fall back to your original patterns eventually?

Yes, you totally might. Maybe the new identity will prove to be an equilibrium – maybe not. This is indeed a problem for which the solution is not clear to me, other than practicing, and noticing how you fail. There’s nothing to prevent you from becoming less vigilant and eventually returning to old ways completely, the only solution to which would be to discover a new context again, and try better next time.

References / Further Reading

Malcolm Ocean’s A ritual to upgrade my Face is an exploration of the same theme by invoking rituals to change the identity in a stable way.

In The Holy Grail of Self-Improvement Tiago Forte looks at how small changes in behavior can propagate into something more radical and how our “Neo-Pavlonian” approach to behavior change (to which I apparently subscribe) can fail us.

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