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The Goldilocks Zones for Self-Improvement

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Finding the Goldilocks Zones for change

How well are you right now, on a scale from 1 to 100? where 1 is ‘The Pit of Doom, I am going to die the next second, everything is unbearable’ and 100 is ‘Elysium, I am perfect and everything in my life is perfect, I cannot imagine anything better.’

Think of the answer, I will wait.

If your answer is 10 or less, then you are in the Pit of Doom. You are in a very very very bad state.

If your answer is 90 or less, then you are on the Peak of Paradise. You are in a very very very good state.

If your answer is between 11 and 89, then you are in the Swamp of Comfort. Most people are here most of the time. Hedonistic adaptation indicates this is the natural state towards we tend regardless of outside circumstances. 

There is nothing wrong with the Swamp of Comfort. It’s not a bad place to be. Anywhere above 60 is pretty good. 

Yet this state of relative wellness inhibits you from changing your behaviour, and your life.

The Goldilocks Zones

Goldilocks and the Three Bears is a fairy tale. It tells the story of a girl who wanders the woods and finds the houses of three bears. They are not at home so she enters their homes. The first bear is big and everything in the house is too big for Goldilocks. In the second bear’s home everything is too small for her. In the third bear’s home everything is at just the right size.

Self-change is the same. You cannot do it whenever you want. The conditions need to be just right. 

The conditions refer to our internal state. Based on our barometer of wellness they are: Pit of Doom, Swamp of Comfort and Peak of Paradise. In only two of them can you change your life, yet they are the most rare. You might guess these Goldilocks zones are the extremes, rather than the messy middle.

The Swamp of Comfort

Let’s take John. John rates himself as 73 on the barometer. He considers his life is rather good overall. Yet he feels miserable, anxious, frustrated, confused, despondent and tired most of the time.

John has some self-harmful habits he would like to change. He eats junk food, he doom-scrolls social media, he binge watches Netflix, he drinks too much alcohol and wakes up with hangovers, he procrastinates instead of working, he watches screens on the couch instead of exercising, and so on. 

He wants to change these habits and get his life on track. He wants to be stronger, healthier, achieve more success, find clarity and meaning in life. 

But he cannot. John intends to change. He even tries to do it. But he never manages to enact any lasting change. The most he achieved were 6 days without sugar and two weeks without alcohol. But then he went back to eating and drinking.

Unbeknownst to John, his score of 73, is what prevents him from changing his life. He is not desperate enough to break through his habits and unconscious inertia. Yet at the same time all the problems and stresses consume so much that he does not have the energy to break through.

This is why it is a swamp of comfort. It’s bad enough to hold you down, but good enough that you don’t make a 100% effort to escape.

The modern world includes a large amount of factors that make the Swamp of Comfort ‘stickier’ and harder to escape. Some of them are:

  • information overload
  • social media stress
  • neverending tasks
  • multitasking stress
  • stranger stress
  • auditive stress 
  • digestive stress from harmful foods
  • dopamine loops from all of our ‘soft addictions’ (e.g. social media, porn, junk food, etc.)
  • health issues, such as chronic illnesses and hidden inflammation
  • advertising stress
  • shopping stress
  • opportunity stress (e.g. FOMO)
  • material belonging maintenance stress
  • sleep deficit

All of these marinate your brain in stress hormones (glucocorticoids). This is a significant strain on your mental and physical resources. When under strain, the brain conserves energy. So it denies the high energy required to initiate any change in behaviour.

On top of that, the stress itself amplifies tendencies which prevent change for long term benefit: you become more narrow-minded, hyper-focused on the short-term, chase immediate rewards, the capability to plan for the long-term decreases as does creativity. 

Stress makes us ADHD hamsters. We spin the wheel harder instead of stepping out of it.

Why is change so difficult?

What needs to happen for John to change a habit? His PaleoRobot has deep algorithm to ensure safety by repeating proven behaviour again and again. Changing them is not a simple decision. It takes multiple difficult steps:

  1. Accept that current behaviour is harmful. This is scary and takes a lot of emotional energy
  2. Research what is the desired change. This takes cognitive energy
  3. Understand how to implement change so that new behaviour sticks. You cannot just decide to change. You need to create an environment that pushes toward the new behaviour and constantly reinforce it. This step takes both cognitive and emotional energy.
  4. Make the required environment changes. For example eliminate sugar from your home if you want to quit sugar. Again this takes emotional energy (and some physical energy).
  5. Initiate new behaviour with willpower. Any change needs willpower in the beginning. This is draining emotionally. We have limited available willpower.
  6. Persuade yourself of the new story. Any behaviour change comes with a change in how you see the world. For it to stick, you need to reinforce the new narrative constantly. Take emotional and cognitive energy

John cannot execute these steps while in the Swamp of Comfort. It is simply too hard. His PaleoRobot will refuse to allocate so much energy and will go back to the proven behaviour.

What is the escape? Either improve your well-being or demolish it.

The Peak of Paradise

If John were to reach it, he would have the available energy needed to plan and initiate habit change. 

How does the Peak of Paradise look like? John is calm, satisfied, rested, socially fulfilled, healthy, feels strong and fit, has no pending tasks and worries in his mind. He can sit without doing anything and think, rather than feeling the need of the next hit of distraction.

How can John achieve this? He does not need a year on a paradise island or a million dollars. He only needs to get his mind and body in shape. And get some distance from his daily routines.

Prescription would be something like this: Sleep well. Eat nutritious. Do moderate fitness. Spend time with people he cares about. Close open loops from work. Go to a new place, but without the goal to visit touristic objectives. If John can go in nature for at least three days without mobile Internet, even better.

After a few days in this state, ponder the change. Plan the steps for change. When John gets back to his daily conditions, he can now implement the change.

Maybe John cannot reach the Peak of Paradise. The other solution is the second of the Goldilocks Zones.

The Pit of Doom

The second of the Goldilocks zones for change is one of despair. This is when John thinks he has hit rock bottom. When everything is unbearable. And when there is no hope of improvement, but rather even the imminent possibility it will be even worse. It is a moment of crisis.

From the Pit of Doom, there are two possible escapes: either accept the doom or change. The situation is too dire for our usual denial and self-deception. These keep us blind to our problems in the Swamp of Comfort. But they fall apart in the pit.

The risk with the Pit of Doom is to accept the situation. This makes it serious depression instead of a crisis. You give up against an unbearable situation. 

As a side-note, this might explain some counterintuitive treatments for depression. Sleep deprivation can be beneficial for depression. A meta-analysis shows it improves symptoms in about half the cases. I believe it’s because it snap the PaleoRobot from depression into crisis mode. Being sleep deprived is a signal for a serious crisis which mobilizes mental and physical resources to fight it. These resources then address the causes of the depression.

Back to our problem of self-change depression is a difficult problem. This is why when possible, the Peak of Paradise is a better route. 

On the other hand, if you don’t accept the Pit of Doom, the threat is a a powerful motivator for change. In the Pit you have the feeling of ‘you are about to die unless you do something about these problems’. The something is changing the habits which cause the problems.

This perception of imminent demise overcomes the PaleoRobot’s inertia. Danger is a switch in our unconscious algorithms. It makes what appeared safe (past habits) become potentially risky. Trying new habits and giving up old ones becomes easier as it feels as an immediate survival strategy.

The Pit of Doom is behind shocking transformation: people who go from 300 pound couch-potatoes to 150 pound marathoners, people who go from 3 packs a day to holding workshops on how to quit smoking (Allen Carr), people who go from multitasking workaholic burnout to highly successful inventor of a philosophy of less work (Tim Ferriss).

I changed my bad habits because I felt I was in the Pit of Doom. Looking from the outside it did not appear I had a bad life. But in my perception I was on the suffering Express.

This underlies an important point. The Peak of Paradise needs objective well-being. You need to get your body and mind in order. You cannot just believe everything is perfect. 

However the Pit of Doom does not need you to be on the deathbed. It only needs the perception that you are in a deep and severe crisis. The objective reality is irrelevant. Only your perception matters. 

This makes it a strategy you can consciously use. If you fail at changing a habit, you can try pushing yourself in the Pit of Doom. Make the negative effects more and more dramatic in your mind. Research the risks and harms that come with the respective habit. Visualize the effect in ten years, twenty years, thirty years. All so you can create the crisis in your mind which overrides the usual inertia of the PaleoRobot.

How do you use this?

The escape is to move to one of the Goldilocks zones. The Peak of Paradise is easier but it needs you to create actual well-being for yourself: find the time to rest, disconnect, take care of yourself.

You are in the Swamp of Comfort. In the swamp you don’t change. You keep doing the same things you did before. Even if you believe they are harmful. This will continue until you are on your deathbed and realize you have wasted your life with awful habits.

The other zone, The Pit of Doom, is more unpleasant. But it can be achieved through perception alone.

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