Activating a Context Versus Triggering a Habit

The Active Mind



Based on some comments I made in a coaching call, a Thinking Labber wrote to me as follows:


I’m fascinated by the idea that self-sacrifice is an easily activated context and not a habit. I’d love to learn more about that, but I’m not sure of the right questions to ask. I’m not even sure I get what you mean. It’s so different from how I have it in my mind.

It’s different from how most people think about it. Here’s a quick rundown of my view.

“Habit” needs to be precisely defined

Thanks to the influence of behaviorism, the term “habit” is commonly used to subsume a wide range of repeatable or regular behavior, regardless of the cause of such behavior. The problem with this is that different repeatable, regular behavior can have fundamentally different causes. Psychological concepts need to be defined in terms of fundamentals, i.e., by means of root causes, not superficial similarities.

For this reason, I limit the term “habit” to automatized perceptual motor skills, i.e., physical actions that happen automatically in response to awareness of a particular kind of environment, unless you intervene to stop them.

For example, I have a habit of clearing my plate and doing the dishes shortly after I’ve finished eating my dinner. I know it’s a habit because I often find myself at the sink without having set any conscious intention to move there. Since I like having the kitchen counters clean, I almost always let this habit go to completion. Qua habit, it feels easy and effortless to do so.

However, if an alarm goes off during my last bites, reminding me I need to jump on the phone or Zoom, I quickly finish eating and leave the table without a thought for the dishes. The “doing the dishes” habit doesn’t trigger because the situation is different. Usually when I don’t do the dishes, my husband does them instead. If not, the “doing the dishes” habit still does not trigger when I come back and see the undone dishes. It only triggers at the end of a meal while I’m at the dining table.

In fact, if I don’t do the dishes spontaneously at the end of dinner, they will not get done later unless I make a conscious decision to initiate cleaning up.

Changing habits

Notice that the habit I described is a positive action that gets triggered in very specific circumstances.

Someone might say, “Haha, I have a habit of not doing the dishes. I let them pile up!” That is not a habit. That is an absence of a habit. No action occurs.

This distinction matters because it is easier to create a new, good habit than it is to eliminate an old, bad habit.

If you wanted to create a new habit of washing the dishes immediately after eating, you’d need to repeat the same actions in the same circumstances for a few weeks. Always eat at the same place at the same table, always bring the dishes to the sink the same way, always clean the dishes and/or fill the dishwasher in a standard pattern. You could figure out what your set procedure would be, then set up reminders to help you remember it. For example, you could make a placemat that has a reminder, “Do the dishes as soon as you finish eating.” Or you could put a sign in with the dishes, “Eat at the table, then clean the dishes, then celebrate the clear sink.”

What’s required to create a perceptual-motor habit is to commit to easy, repeatable, pre-planned actions. Granted, if you have some old baggage on this topic, you might have difficulty executing the actions. But if you execute them, you will form the habit.

Breaking a bad habit is more difficult because habits are triggered without self-awareness. For example, if you’ve tried to break the habit of a verbal tic such as saying “y’know,” at first you don’t even realize you’re saying it. Typically you don’t even realize you have the bad habit until you see yourself on videotape. When you first try to change it, you may only catch it in hindsight. The work concerns increasing your self-awareness. Once you start noticing that you are about to say “y’know,” you can create a new habit to replace it. I broke the “y’know” habit by substituting a silent pause when I was tempted to say “y’know.”

What about “the habit of self-sacrifice”?

In contrast, a so-called “habit of self-sacrifice” is mental, not physical. The Thinking Labber meant actions such as:

  • When people ask you for help, you don’t stop to think if helping them is consistent with achieving your top priorities; you just say yes.
  • When you do something for yourself, you feel guilty afterwards that you were not helping other people.
  • When you think about what career you want to have, you rule out anything that doesn’t help other people.

These are patterns of behavior but they are not like my habit of doing the dishes. First of all, the same kind of behavior occurs in response to totally different people and in totally different physical circumstances. They are the result of a point of view that can be summed up as: “Helping other people is more important than doing what matters to yourself.”

This is a conceptual conclusion that many people hear and accept as children. This is how morality is explained to them. If you consistently make decisions on the basis of this idea, you will program your value hierarchy to be consistent with it. This means that the value of helping other people will be very strong, stronger than the value of most of your personal interests. Since it’s understood as a moral issue, it is tied to your sense of whether you’re a good person or not, perhaps your top value.

Programming your values this way has a direct effect on your future emotions. Whenever the possibility of helping another is raised, you will feel a strong desire to help and a strong aversion to not helping. Unless you intervene, you’ll help. If you do intervene and take the action for yourself instead, you will be punished by guilt. This is the predictable effect of the morality of self-sacrifice: a constant feeling of conflict over what you should do, with what you think is moral winning a lot of the time. But since total self-sacrifice is impractical and self-destructive, you will sometimes do what you think is good for yourself instead. Or you will come up with crazy rationalizations to justify doing things to make them seem like they are helping other people.

This value programming is completely different from habit formation. It involves your conscious conclusions about morality and the values that you form as a result of your goal-directed action. It’s not caused by repeated physical actions — it’s caused by deeply rooted ideas that consistently guide your choices.

How you change your moral values

Because they have a different cause, these patterns of behavior need a different process to change them. You cannot just substitute a different action. That is a prescription for inner turmoil. Moral values are deeply integrated into your psyche and cannot be changed by action per se.

The first step is to reach an intellectual conclusion about what a proper morality consists of. For this, I refer you to the work of Ayn Rand, who makes a compelling case for the morality of rational egoism and a damning case against the widespread morality of self-sacrifice. When you see that a code of self-sacrifice has caused the evils in your life and in those around you, and that egoism is responsible for the creation of values in the same, you become intellectually convinced.

An intellectual conclusion is not enough to change your psychology, but it is the necessary first step. It gives you the means to notice that your moral code is relevant to a decision and the conviction that you need to change the way your values are programmed. But an intellectual conclusion will not resolve the inner conflict or automatically make it easy to act in accordance with your new convictions. 

Rather, making such a decision will increase the conflict you feel in the examples I gave above. What actions you take in response to that conflict determine whether you remain in conflict or actually change your psychology to align your stored values with your conscious convictions.

The good news is that these instances of inner conflict can be handled the same as any other instances of inner conflict: introspect the contrary motivation until you identify all of the deep rational values at stake in the situation, then make a decision based on the biggest value. This is how you untangle the valid from the invalid in your automatic reactions. It is the same process by which you strengthen values so that your stored values are in alignment with your conscious goals.

This is a big topic, which I explain briefly in several blog posts:

The process by which you address conflict by orienting to values is self-direction, which I explain briefly in this article, To Learn Creative Skills, Develop “Self-Direction,” Not “Self-Discipline” or “Self-Control.” It is taught in depth in the Thinking Lab in several courses.

The skill of activating a different context

When I say that “self-sacrifice is an easily-activated context, not a habit,” I mean that it occurs to you in words. This makes it easier to catch than a physical action.

The old way of looking at your choices will still come easily for some time because the value of helping other people will be disproportionately strong. It will be easy to trigger that value and all of the conceptual conclusions related to it. But to the extent you have changed your mind about the issue, you will feel conflict that will call your attention to the problem.

And you are not at the mercy of what occurs to you. The fact that these ideas occur to you and trigger motivation to surrender your values doesn’t mean that you have to follow through. Moreover, the easiest way to shift the situation is by rethinking the issue, then and there.

With about three minutes of work, you can activate a fuller context of knowledge that puts the old way of thinking into perspective and helps you disentangle real values (such as people you love and do want to help in certain circumstances) from duties and rules that were drilled into you with the fear of disapproval or damnation.

You are free to use your thinking to activate the full context of values so that you can make an egoistic choice with your eyes wide open.

This is one reason Ayn Rand describes thinking as one’s fundamental choice. If you think about the conflict, you can consciously bring the new context of knowledge to bear, see how the pull you are feeling is wrong, reprogram the connections a bit then and there, and act on your rational judgment. This not only untangles past mistakes, it strengthens the value of acting on your consciously held priorities, making it easier to do so in the future.

And here’s the important thing: No matter how ingrained a past mistake is, you can always think fresh about how to deal with the present situation. It is not action per se that reprograms a moral code; it is action on the basis of having deliberately activated all you know. It is the work you do to understand the conflict and rethink the real-life issues from a new perspective that integrates the new view of morality into your psychology.

It’s simple, once you learn the skill

I don’t want to imply that changing an automatized moral code is easy. To change your mind about something that fundamental takes more than just getting an idea. It takes integrating it with all of your other knowledge.

But once you learn the skill of activating a value-oriented context, it’s simple and straightforward. Every time you feel conflict or are focused on threats, you pause and go through a 3-minute process to look at all of the same facts from a value-oriented perspective. As I say elsewhere, this doesn’t mean that you pretend that bad things are good or try to make yourself happy when you’re miserable. No. You get very clear on values that are open to your action in the situation and you switch your attention to gaining the top value now. This gives you a sense of agency and puts all the negatives in their proper context. They do not stop you.

If this sounds miraculous, it does feel kinda miraculous. But there is a simple explanation. When you activate a different context of knowledge and values, you see different options for action. It’s a little like the paper fortune tellers you may have made as kids. (See the picture to refresh your recollection.) Depending on your initial choices, you wind up accessing different answers to your questions.

And every time you do that, you are purging the morality of self-sacrifice from your soul and integrating the morality of rational egoism into it.

Share this page


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up to get a new article every week!

Browse By Category

Add to Cart

Do you need help getting your employer to reimburse you for the cost of your tuition?

Just let me know — I can help with the paperwork.

I can provide you a formal invoice to receive reimbursement from your employer.

Or, if your company prefers to pay the cost directly, I can accept a purchase order and invoice the company.

In addition, there is a 10% discount when three people register together.

Add to Cart

Powered by WishList Member - Membership Software