How to live in a world we weren’t designed for

I spend more time thinking and reading and writing about health and productivity and diet and exercise than almost everyone I know. I’m not saying this to brag — if I were bragging, the next sentence here would be “and I have it all figured out and everything is easy for me.”

I do not. I’ve become so obsessed with these topics partially because of how fundamentally bad I am at them. It feels cosmically rude that even now, after writing who knows-how-many articles and an entire book on the subject, I find sticking to my plans and goals in this arena basically as hard as everyone else does. I research, and ponder, and synthesize, and still, not much changes in my day-to-day. I’m still just a person who’s just trying to sleep well and not stress too much and eat right and train and spend time with people I care about and work hard on things that I find valuable and interesting and I’m still just doing my good-but-not-amazing best.

Sure, I’ve developed skills and built systems to address and appropriately reframe the problems I deal with, and those skills and systems help me find possible solutions to those problems. Still, at the core of my being, I feel an overwhelming desire to read Reddit on my phone at work while mindlessly chewing on office snacks just about as much as anyone else.

I’ve even spent a lot of time over the last few years going meta and trying to understand why that is — why knowing more about these topics doesn’t directly translate to doing better — instead of trying to go deeper into the topics themselves.

That curiosity, I think, comes from the naïve feeling that I sort of danced around a few paragraphs ago, a feeling that this should all get easier as I learn more about it.

But it doesn’t.

I’m not sure it ever will, because the “me” that’s doing the learning isn’t really the one that’s acting out the behavior I want to change. And, on top of that, the evolutionary wiring that got us (as a species) to this point has not changed as fast as our environment, and has left us woefully underprepared for the world we now find ourselves living in.

Planners and doers

The most plausible explanation that I’ve found for why all of this fitness and productivity nerdery and obsession doesn’t seem to produce the results that I’m looking for comes out of what’s called the dual-self model, part of what’s called dual process theory.

I’ve explored this model before in this previous article about when I didn’t go to the gym for months, but as a quick recap:

The dual-self model says that instead of having just one set of ways of thinking about and interacting with the world, we have two: the planner and the doer. Thinking and decision making under the “doer”1Sometimes called “system one” by behavioral economists and me in previous articles. is fast, intuitive, instinctive, and largely unconscious. The “planner”2Sometimes called “system two.” on the other hand, is is slow, rational, and deliberate.

One of the most influential researchers in this space, behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, thinks that the planner and the doer are so different that it actually makes more sense to think of them as two separate selves: the remembering self and the experiencing self. The remembering self plans, thinks, and contextualizes our actions, while the experiencing self makes most of our day-to-day decisions. Critically, it makes these decisions without the input or knowledge of the remembering self. “Odd as it may seem,” says Kahneman, “I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self… is a stranger to me.”3If you read that previous article, you’ll recognize this as a re-cut version of my explanation from there. The planner/doer names actually come from Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler instead of Kahneman, but the two have collaborated enough and agree on enough that I’m fairly confident the only difference between planner/doer and system one/system two is semantics and doesn’t represent any meaningful difference

So: most of my behavior and in-the-moment desires are controlled by an unconscious doer, and that part of my brain runs on quick thinking and heuristics. My learning and thinking self, the self that is writing this article and thinking about how it’s unfair that self-discipline doesn’t get easier even when you spend thousands of hours researching, is largely divorced from this doing self.

The whole thing is even more difficult when it comes to topics that are core to our survival. The behavior of the doer, especially around topics like food and exercise, has largely been shaped by evolution — in fact, the last article I wrote was about how you shouldn’t blame the doer when it behaves in ways you find counterintuitive or frustrating, largely because it’s just trying to keep you alive.

The problem with evolution as the “designer” of this biological software is that evolution selects for a very specific kind of survival. Your brain isn’t actually trying to keep you alive for as long (or as well) as possible, it’s specifically trying to get you to reproduce, and only cares about survival in that context. Moreover, it only knows how to optimize for that specific kind of survival via rules and heuristics that it developed while living in a harsh and unforgiving environment — one that looks much more like the African Plains than a modern city block.

Why the doer can no longer keep up in our modern world

Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom,4Bostrom actually comes at the same problem from a slightly different angle. In his 2008 essay with Anders Sandberg titled “The Wisdom of Nature”, he asks why it is so hard to improve on the human system that nature has created via evolution without having those interventions fail or backfire. He hypothesizes that we can’t really make good improvements, unless those interventions are made either necessary or possible via the same three reasons that we see mismatches between the behavior we evolved to perform and what would be most useful today. proposes three main reasons why we see a mismatch between the behavior our doers evolved to perform and the behavior that would be best:

  1. Changed tradeoffs
    The environment we live in is profoundly and obviously different than the one we evolved in; the life of a western business traveler in the 21st century is clearly different than the life of a hunter-gatherer on the savanna right around when Homo Sapiens started existing.
    Most people who travel for work live a largely sedentary lifestyle. We have virtually unlimited access to food. We carry around forms of entertainment in our pockets that are powerful enough to completely hijack our neural circuitry and endlessly occupy our reward systems. We have more or less unfettered access to shelter and healthcare and all of our basic needs for survival.
    As we ask our doers — systems that evolved in a very specific niche — to act in modern environments, it’s not surprising that they might not be equipped to handle the challenges these new environments bring.
  2. Value discordance.
    As I discussed in that previous article, because we have everything we need to survive, we can (and do! and should!) have goals beyond propagating our genes. We want to succeed in our careers, to make an impact on the world, to enjoy ourselves and see our friends and be good members of the community. We want to look reasonably fit and feel energetic on a daily basis. We want to live to a ripe old age.
    Evolution, unfortunately, doesn’t care about any of that. Our bodies and unconscious brains are more than happy to let us get fat because there might one day be a food shortage that would take us out of the gene pool; they’re more than happy to have us lay around and conserve energy for some future threat rather pursue our hobbies and work.
    Evolution has optimized our doers’ behavior to maximize survival, reproduction, the propagation of genes, and literally nothing else. Every time we ask them to optimize for anything that isn’t maximizing reproductive fitness, they struggle.
  3. Evolutionary restrictions
    Evolution takes time. It’s a process that works over generations, over hundreds or even thousands of years. There is evidence to suggest that we’re still evolving at a fairly surprising rate, but it’s still insufficient to keep up with the rate of change in our modern environment. Even if our doers do eventually evolve to be fit for our modern world, it’s already too late for us and for at least the next dozen, maybe the next hundred-plus generations.

So: how do we handle the fact that we live in a world that our unconscious minds are not optimized for? I think the answer has to do with designing systems to force your doer to act a certain way and developing coping skills in the same vein5Which I’ll be addressing in more depth in a later article., Both of these begin with developing an appropriate framing of the problems at hand.

Technology is the cause of most of these problems

Technology is the primary reason why we experience the value discordance, changed tradeoffs, and evolutionary restrictions that cause our evolved systems to be a poor match for our modern times. Not just technology in the narrow sense of information technology either; I mean technology in the broad sense of tools and techniques developed via the application of science.

These new tools and techniques are changing the world at rapid and every increasing rate; so fast that evolution can’t keep up and will keep falling further and further behind. I’d even go so far as to say that we’re evolutionarily bankrupt: we’ve (long ago) crossed the barrier where evolution would be able to keep up with the rate of change, and I don’t think we’ll be turning back.

Beyond our increasing general maladaptation to the world around us, our ability to perform the basic health and productivity behaviors that we want to perform — like eating foods that are good for us and staying focused in a distracting office — are made harder by technologies that hijack our subconscious “doers.” Many technologies interact in surprising and negative ways with our bodies and our unconscious minds by tapping directly into behaviours that used to help us survive. Sometimes it’s as a byproduct of more noble and legitimate aims, and sometimes they’re technologies specifically designed to hijack our bodies and brains.

Processed food was created as part of a noble effort to make shelf-stable wartime rations to feed GIs fighting in WWII. This was valuable in the war effort, and continues to be valuable in disaster relief and other arenas. It also created foods that had more salt, sugar, and fat than prehistoric humans could ever dream of. Our doers, still trying to seek out maximal calorie density at all times and save for potential famine, go totally haywire when it comes to these foods. We crave them, we overeat them, and they go directly to our waistlines — because the doer is just trying to save some calories for a rainy day.

It’s even worse for populations who adapted for even more caloric scarcity. Samoan Islanders evolved in relative isolation and food scarcity, and as a result developed “thrifty genes” that encouraged them to save even more calories (in the form of fat) whenever possible. As a result, when processed modern food was introduced to the islands, you saw a massive spike in health issues due to weight gain, and now something like 90% of Samoans are clinically obese because they evolved to hold onto calories even better than most.

Unlike the accidental hijacking caused by processed foods, free-to-play games are explicitly hijacking these systems.6There’s actually a whole cottage industry around creating addictive habit loops in these games and experiences, largely driven by a single (and in my opinion morally bankrupt) book called Hooked, by author Nir Eyal, that teaches people how to effectively hijack our doers. With purchasable power ups and “juicy” game design, games like Candy Crush Saga and most social media apps are carefully and explicitly designed to exploit our doers into behaving in ways that benefit those companies, but not necessarily ourselves.

These addictive experiences suck up massive amounts of time, and the easy dopamine hit makes them a welcome distraction from a difficult task. While we usually enjoy spending time on these experiences while we’re actively engaged, there’s research (and personal experience) that suggest that in retrospect, we’re highly unhappy when we spend too much time with them.

Via negativa

When possible, the best way to deal with these technologies is to just remove them (or parts of them) from your life, no matter why they gained the ability to completely hotwire our evolved systems.

Start by examining if you get any real utility out of them, or if you could satisfy the needs they serve in other ways. If you can, remove them from your life with extreme prejudice. Don’t get near highly processed food. Don’t ever put addictive games on your phone.

If you feel that you do get some value out of them and you would like to keep them in your life to some extent, the answer is still to attempt to remove the most hijack-y pieces or situations from the technologies. Don’t keep highly processed food in the house and only buy single servings when you’re out and about, to reduce the ability and desire to binge. Turn off notifications on that phone game, or only use social media through the (mildly terrible) web interfaces, to remove some of the pleasure and some of the variable reward that short-circuits everything.

The tricky part of removal is that not every technology that has the potential to hijack our unconscious thinking is an unalloyed problem that we need to just get rid of. Sure, Candy Crush probably doesn’t have much utility, but the smartphone it runs on is more complicated. It has the potential to become incredibly addictive and distracting, but it’s also incredibly valuable and powerful to have a always-internet-connected computer constantly in your pocket. Some people are willing to get rid of them completely, but I find far too much utility in having it to give it up.

In that case, I think we should still try to straight up remove any negative elements that our doers can’t handle and that don’t majorly impact the utility of the thing. I personally keep my phone on black and white much of the time and also turn off notifications for basically every app except messaging and phone calls — this minimizes the much of the distraction while still allowing me to engage with this amazing piece of technology when I find it useful.

But then, there are still other problems that we can’t just remove away. The blue light from screens (both computer and smartphone) can badly disrupt sleep cycles, but we can actually use more technology to carefully intervene and remove that negative externality. In the case of blue light, there are various apps and system settings that shift the hue of your screens to be more orange-y at night and remove most of the blue light; there are also blue-light-filtering glasses you can buy and wear.

Finding the balance

A couple great example of complicated technologies with many positives and negatives are air and car travel. As someone who basically travels full time, myself and many, many of my colleagues get up too early or stay up too late just to spend many uncomfortable hours on planes and in taxis and rented cars. We then, as a direct result, also have to sleep in hotel beds and work at bad desks and eat every meal at restaurants.

This all takes a toll on our bodies, stress levels, and personal lives, not to mention the extremely outsized carbon footprint it generates, but still: it gives us the ability to do interesting and valuable work that we enjoy. It enables us to see new places and experience their cultures. It empowers us to create and maintain and grow relationships with people who don’t live in our immediate vicinity.

If you can find the same fulfillment without traveling, the first choice should still be to eliminate it as much as possible. But if you (like me) can’t, just try to remove what’s negative, either through true removal or through the removal of negative outcomes via new technology. (If you’re curious how to do that for business travel in particular: that’s kind of what our whole blog and book are about.)

Ultimately, technology has allowed us to support more people with the resources we have, and to massively increase how easy it is to meet their basic needs. When we free people from their base needs, they’re able to move up Maslow’s hierarchy and start to focus on higher-order needs like love and belongingness, self-esteem, personal fulfillment, and self-transcendence.

This is a good thing.

The fact that technology is causing problems doesn’t mean that we should roll back all of the progress we’ve seen since the industrial revolution. It just means certain things are going to be harder — like the health and productivity and diet and exercise stuff that I care so much about. Thankfully, it also means that a whole hell of a lot of things are going to be easier.

Travel for Work?

Learn the secrets of pain-free flying with our weekly subscriber-only letters and two free chapters of our book, The Road Warrior.