change your habits to hack your mind

Getting Out of Your Groove

Recently one of my favorite authors, John Scalzi, wrote a column in the TOR newsletter about how he challenged himself with his latest book, Lock In. It wasn’t a huge challenge, on the surface: he simply did not allow himself to use semi-colons. For most non-writers and perhaps even most writers, this would not be a big deal. For Mr. Scalzi, though, it was quite the challenge:

…you don’t understand. I don’t just like semicolons; I love them like kids love cake. And I don’t just use semicolons; I slather them all over my writing. I will write sentences with not just one, not just two but three and even four semicolons in them…I am a semicolon abuser; God help me, I adore them so.

Aside from his history of punctuation abuse Mr. Scalzi also enjoys a tremendously successful reputation as a writer. His novel Red Shirts won the coveted Hugo Award last year, and his Old Man’s War series replaced Heinlein and Bujold as my favorite military sci-fi. That begs the question: why would he change things up when things seem to be going so well for him?

the point was for me, as a writer, to break myself of a habit that shaped my prose; to make myself aware of what I was doing with my writing, and how. I still use semicolons; I still love them. But now I’m using them because I intend to, and don’t use them when I don’t.

Simple Changes for Complex Benefits

How about that: eliminating a semi-colon as a tool for self-awareness! That’s always a good thing (though not always a comfortable one; personally, while I don’t have a problem with semi-colons, my addiction to commas and parenthetical asides is, charitably speaking, ridiculous). Mr. Scalzi is doing more than that when he changes things up. The self-awareness is the surface level. There’s much more going on underneath the hood.

By forcing his brain to take different paths and methods he is literally making his brain bigger and stronger. It’s true! Research into neuroplasticity has revealed that the brain is more adaptable than people would have ever expected. An example: black-cab drivers in London have a measurably larger hippocampus (the part of the brain involved with navigation) compared their fellow bus drivers. The research indicates that black-cab drivers develop this extra capacity because they have to constantly come up with new routes as opposed to bus drivers who travel the same path daily.

But wait, there’s more. Remember resilience? It’s “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress.” A University of California guide to build up personal resilience includes guidelines such as “Take Clear Actions”, “Progress Towards Your Goal”, and of course “Accept Changes as Part of Life.” Like any other skill, each of these gets better with practice. Changing a simple habit gives you the power to make decisions that lead towards your goal of changing something.

No, taking out a semicolon isn’t a huge change. But it does build up resilience-muscles for when a big change might be necessary.

The Spanish Inquisition Strategy

There's something I forgot to tell you...
“There’s something I forgot to tell you…”

There’s one other pretty fun and slightly evil reason to change up your habits: no one expects it! People are interested in things that change, whether it be blog pages or governments, and by being someone who tries new things you will draw attention. The literal definition of “stunt” is to do something unusual that others don’t normally do. Keep in mind it may be people pointing fingers and saying “What the heck are they doing?” but you can just smile on the inside of your growing brain with the strength of resilience.

In other words, all these little lifehacks and changes may seem silly, and many of them are. Do you really need a more efficient way to peel a banana? Probably not. Then again, pumping the handles on that elliptical isn’t getting me anywhere, either. But both will improve your ability to practice and not only survive change but thrive in it.

As another great science fiction writer put it:

is the one unavoidable, 
ongoing reality of the universe. 
To us, 
that makes it the most powerful reality, 
and just another word for 

Earthseed: The Books of the Living
Lauren Oya Olamina” 
― Octavia E. Butler



2 thoughts on “change your habits to hack your mind”

Leave a Reply

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