Competing Modules and Bet Stacking — How to Change A Habit, For Real


in Guest Post, Habit Change

This is a guest post from Ben Rubin of Change Collective. They build mobile lifestyle courses that pair expert content with a live coach to help you follow through.
[Note from Maneesh: Ben has been working a magnum-opus describing how behavior change really works. He’s excited to be giving away an advance copy of ‘Humans, This is How Behavior Change Works’[1] [2]  and would love feedback specifically from Hack The System readers. Read till the end of the post to find out how to get this.]

The War With Ourselves

What would your life be like if you could reliably follow through on your best intentions? Would you call your Grandmother every Sunday? Train for a marathon? Start a new business?

The possibilities are endless, and yet tantalizingly out of reach.

Everyone has the frustrating experience of having our best intentions sabotaged by ourselves. From the mundane (unable to resist an office donut) to the catastrophic (‘I did not have sex with that woman – Monica Lewinsky’) it’s intrinsic to our humanity: we are our own worst enemy.

And it matters who wins this war. When our best selves gain control we move towards our goals, treat the people around us with respect, and experience the satisfaction of a life well lived. Our worst selves lead us down a slippery slope towards obesity, poverty, and bitterness.

This classic battle has been articulated throughout the ages. Odysseus and the Sirens. The Elephant and the Rider. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Now research at the forefront of cognitive science can help us understand why we go to war with ourselves. Armed with that knowledge we can stack the deck in favor of our best selves. Read on to learn how.

Your Brain Doesn’t Work The Way You Think It Does

So what’s behind our seemingly non-rational behavior? Why are we so inconsistent?

It turns out that ‘our’ mind is not a singular entity. It’s a multitude of ‘modules’ with competing agendas. These modules are the product of our evolution. In their own way, each module helped our ancestors survive and replicate. But evolution doesn’t design for happiness, and in our modern world these warring modules can threaten our well-being.

Consider a few (drastically simplified) ‘modules’ in our mind. Our Hunger Module drives us to consume ‘rewarding’ food. Our Rest Module is behind feeling tired and ensures we go to bed. Our Social Bonding Module produces warm fuzzies when we connect with those around us.

And what about that ‘higher self’? The goal setting and planning functions of our mind are more recent additions to our repertoire. The Planning Module is located (again I’m simplifying) in the pre-frontal cortex and is a recently evolved module that separates us from our primate cousins.

This ‘modular mind’ framework helps explain the paradox of going to war with ourselves. Depending on the context, different modules exert varying levels of influence on our behavior. On monday morning (context: well rested, not hungry, well socialized from a weekend of fun) our Planning Module lays out our best intentions for the week. Tuesday morning our Rest Module demands that we sleep in later than planned, sabotaging our morning routine and exercise. Thursday evening our Social Bonding Module reminds us that we’ve been living in cave and should head out to a big dinner with our friends, sabotaging our plans again.

For a book-length treatise on the modular mind checkout Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite.

It turns out we can best understand the battle of mind by asking: which module is loudest right now, and why?

Giving Our Planning Module The Edge

Alright, enough with the theory. How can we use this information to give our Planning Module the edge? The key is to take advantage of times when our Planning Module is in control to modify our future context.

Increase the cost of poor decisions: Trying to get in a morning workout? Anticipate the challenge rising from your warm bed, and introduce a social cost by agreeing to meet a friend for a morning run.

Decrease the cost of good decisions: Want to eat more fruit and vegetable? Place a fresh-cut bowl on your kitchen table to make this an easy go-to snack.

Modify your environment to avoid triggering certain modules: Looking to lose weight? Hide tasty snacks in the closet so that the Hunger module isn’t triggered automatically.

We built a course called Slim By Design based on research showing how well these principles work in weight loss, but the possibilities are endless.

Extreme Bet Stacking

I’ve recently taken this concept to an extreme with what I call ‘bet stacking’. Making a series of  behavior bets in dollars (or euros/yen/bitcoin) massively increases the cost of making poor decisions.

Maneesh turned me on to the bet-switch at dinner a few months ago. After bemoaning his lack of gym attendance while building Pavlok he bet me that he would hit the gym at least twice a week or pay $50 per infraction. Maneesh was using his Planning Module to make sure his Lazy Module lay dormant.

I saw his bet and raised the house. Here’s the ‘bet stack’ I put in place.

  • Exercise: Twice a week or pay $25/infraction
  • Nutrition: Low-carb except peri-workout and intermittent fasting or pay $25/day
  • Productivity: Complete my weekly review and 25+ Pomodoros per week or pay $25/infraction. Complete each task I commit to at daily standup, or pay $10/item into the company beer fund.
  • Meditation: Meditate for 15+ minutes, or pay $25/day
  • Drinking: Limit of 2 servings per week, or pay $25/drink

The results have been astounding:

  • Only a single infraction over 4+ weeks. Turns out I hate paying my friends $.
  • Body fat % down from 22.6% -> 19%
  • Muscle Quality Score up from 100 to 106 (as measured by Skulpt)
  • 34 consecutive days of meditation. For comparison, over the last two years I’ve only meditated on 44% of days (stats from Insight Timer)
  • Well over 30 Pomodoros per week (up from ~0). I’m finally meeting or exceeding my personal productivity goals and I’m a stud at company standup.

Emotional Benefits to Bet Stacking

The question everyone asks: How does it feel to be tied down by all those bets?

Believe it or not… I feel empowered. Since I now *know* that I’ll perform to these standards or pay a stiff price, I spend less conscious effort worrying about ‘motivation’. Which corresponds well to what we’ve learned about motivation in behavior change research: it matters less than we think.

A couple examples illustrate the point.

While out with friends on a Thursday night I had my 2 glasses of wine for the week. Normally I’d be worried would lead to a Friday lazy, more drinking Friday night, and so on. A downward spiral. But with the Drinking Bet in place, I *knew* that I’d be on my best behavior for the rest of the week. This allowed me to relax and enjoy my indulgence.

Bets are even helping me relate to my work more constructively. On Sunday I normally feel quite apprehensive about the upcoming week: so much to do! But last Sunday, with the Productivity Bet in place, I realized that I didn’t need to worry. I’d perform to the best of my capabilities. I had to. This enabled me to relax on Sunday evening and dive in with vigor Monday morning.

Bet-stacking has been more effective than I’d imagined was possible! By allowing my Planning Module to more directly control my life I’ve been able to move toward my goals.

Your First Bet Stack

Want to try this yourself? It’s simple.

  1. Pick 2-3 behaviors your ‘better self’ has been bugging you about for a while.
  2. Set goals for each behavior that are both reasonable and extremely specific. Start with a 20% improvement in a given behavior, not a complete life overhaul. You can always ‘up the bet’ later, so pick something you can hit!
  3. Select a short ‘test’ time-frame that you know you can stick with. I suggest 1-2 weeks, ideally when you aren’t travelling.
  4. Find a friend who you’d truly hate to give money to. Someone stronger, faster, wealthier, and better looking. Give yourself no excuses to fail. You can see why Maneesh picked me…
  5. Send an email declaring the bet!
  6. NO CHEATING. Follow your bets to the absolutely letter or this won’t work. I’ve ended up paying friends for breaking my intermittent fasting rule by a few minutes.

With an understanding of modularity and a bet stack, you can move closer to being the sort of person that follows through on their best intentions.

Humans, This is How Behavior Change Works

We’ve been working on a magnum-opus describing how behavior change really works. Behavior change ain’t pretty, but the more we know the better equipped we are to reach our goals. We’re calling this project ‘Humans, This is How Behavior Change Works’.

We know Hack The System readers have been modifying their behavior for years, so we’re excited to give you an advance copy of ‘Humans, This is How Behavior Change Works’ and would love your feedback on the work. When we’re ready, ‘Humans’ will be released to the world.