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Principles of Effective Research: Part VI

by Michael Nielsen on July 14, 2004


Principles of personal change

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get
what you always got.
– Australian netballer Vicki Wilson

How can we build personal habits that encourage research excellence? My belief is that the key is to examine in explicit detail our actualSet behavioural goals: To achieve meaningful personal change you need to know how you want to behave, what habits you want to have. Set goals for yourself. Write them down. Be precise. Some of the goals should be short-term; in fact, it’s best to start that way, since you can then get into the habit of improvement. Start small – there’s no need, initially, for a comprehensive program.

Set simple goals: If you set complex goals for yourself, they become difficult to evaluate, and difficult to think about in a day to day context (“Did I eat the right ratio of protein to carbohydrates to fat to salt today?”). Note, incidentally, that a simple change can still be a big change.

Make changes slowly: It’s better to make changes slowly, and do a good job, than to attempt grandiose changes which are so demanding that they can never be successfully implemented. As the old proverb goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. As Benjamin Disraeli said, the secret of success is constancy of purpose; provided one holds constant to the purpose of becoming an effective researcher, small changes integrated over time will compound and result in tremendous improvement.

Evaluate the changes you make, and update your goals: To be effective, you have to evaluate the changes that you make. Say you set a goal to begin work by 6:30 am each day over the next week. This goal is of little use unless you keep a record of when you begin work each day, and then at the end of the week go through an evaluation process in which you first compare your goals to actual achievement, and then form an action plan, which may consist of either changing your goals, or of making a further change in behaviour in order to achieve the goal over the next week, or possibly doing both.

The process I’ve just described is, in my experience, a surefire way to personal change and growth. To conclude this section, I want to talk a little about some metaphors that I find useful when thinking about the process of personal change, and about some of the difficulties that crop up.

The first metaphor is that of the coach and a sporting team. As a researcher, one combines the roles of player and coach. A useful distinction to clarify thought is to divide your actions up into the roles of player and coach; think of having a player’s hat, and a coach’s hat. This metaphor sheds immediate light on one of the main difficulties faced in research, that of self-mastery and self-management. In a sporting team, there will always be difficult tasks and choices that, left to themselves, the players would be loath to take. Because there is an external force (the coach) imposing the actions, the difficult choices are often made anyway, to everyone’s long-run benefit. It’s easier to fool yourself and take the easy option than it is to fool anyone else; a good coach knows this, and works to prevent it. You need to become your own good coach.

The second metaphor is an idea from computer science known as the gradient descent algorithm. The gradient descent algorithm is a method for finding the maximum value of some function f(x) defined on a “landscape” of possible input values x. The way gradient descent works is to evaluate f(x) at some point, and then to make small perturbations x -> x’ in an attempt to find a value f(x’) larger than the initial f(x). The idea is that by following the local gradient we can find a maximum of the function. Self-improvement is similar, in that we make small changes in the way we work, evaluate whether this gives an improvement, and if so, continue moving in that direction. Indeed, this kind of change process can be applied in any area, not just personal development.

To finish off, I want to talk about one of the major pitfalls in achieving personal change, regression. Personally, I find it quite a downer when I begin developing some good new habits, things are going well, and then I find it all interrupted by some change in my routine. Maybe I go to a conference or on a holiday. My routine is disrupted, and when I return I find that the old good habits fall away. It’s tempting to get a bit down when this happens. While tempting, this, of course, is not a fruitful route to take.

I believe there are several ways one can combat this kind of regression. First of all, accept that this sort of regression will happen. We’re creatures of habit, and it’s easy to fall back into old habits, especially when those old habits require less immediate exertion on our own part. Second, it’s not a disaster when it happens. If you’ve learnt to do something once, you can learn to do it again; you just shouldn’t expect to be able to learn to do it overnight. It will take effort, just like it did the first time; a superficial effort is not enough, one must get back deeply into the process of change. The key is to ask oneself what good habits have been lost, and what sort of process can be used to get back into those habits. Then one has to pay the price again, in order to redevelop the habits. Personally, I am often far too impatient under these circumstances, and just expect to be able to go back to my old good habits without effort. The result, inevitably, is that I fail, and become unhappy about the failure, rather than paying the price necessary to get back into the good habits.

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