Do you feel like your focus and sleep could just be better? If the answer is yes, then keep reading.
First, we will need to go back to Psych 101 and review Classical Conditioning. Some of you may remember learning about Pavlov’s dog. Pavlov was a scientist and like many scientists, he liked to do experiments.
Pavlov essentially demonstrated how habits are created through his experiments on dogs. Long story short he rang a bell, gave the dogs food, measured their saliva. Then he took away the food and only ran the bell and noticed that the dogs still salivate just from hearing the bell. The dogs' brains were already predicting that there would be food since in previous instances they had food after hearing the bell.
Just like dog brains, human brains are also prediction machines. Predictions allow us to plan for the future and save energy.
As a behavior is repeated over and over again, it is transferred into a habit. Habits are automatic processes that require little motivation or thought from us. Unfortunately for us, habits can be positive or negative. We all have habits that help us and habits that harm us.
Most of us have tried and failed to create new habits that will help us. Usually, this occurs around January 1st and has a high failure rate by February 1st. Many of us think we can simply will ourselves into new habits, but this demonstrates a misunderstanding of conditioning and how resistant to big changes our brains can be.
This is why my favorite way of creating habit change leverages the most basic principles of classical conditioning in a painless and easy way.
I think in many ways people don’t realize how simple our brains can be. Yes, we are incredibly complex creatures, but at the same time, we are not so dissimilar to dogs.
Just like Pavlov’s dogs, we can stitch behaviors together to create a particular response.
So if we approach focus and sleep from a Pavlovian perspective we would need a stimulus and a response.
Obviously, in our case, the responses are more focus and better sleep. These are the outcomes we want.
So now we are only missing the stimuli. And this is where it gets fun because stimuli can literally be anything.
Let me give you an example. When I write up research I only listen to one song on repeat. I actually just wrote a lengthy research paper only listening to Enrique Iglesias’s Me Pase, over and over again. Not only does this create the white noise I need to write, I condition myself to only write when this song is playing.
Meaning that if I reach a block I will stop playing it. I am not allowed to listen to the song in any other instance, not when working out not when answering emails. Why? Because this song is my “bell”, it is my stimulus, and I have conditioned myself to write when I hear it.
This is incredibly helpful on the days I don’t want to write, which is something like 75% of the time. But I put Enrique on and my brain all of a sudden gets an urge to write. This is because I have created a habit loop and it would be actually painful for my brain to not complete the loop.
Now at this point, most of you are judging me for my taste in music. But that’s okay you didn’t read this for music recommendations.
Now let’s talk about sleep. Interestingly, sleep is one of the most conditioned responses we partake in. There is a whole treatment protocol for insomnia called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) which centers around this and it is recommended as the first-line therapy for insomnia.
Just like writing or working you can condition your body to fall asleep from a stimulus.
One of the main principles of CBT-I is called stimulus control. In this case, your bed is the stimulus. These days people do all kinds of things in their beds: work, eat, browse their phones, etc. At the same time if you have trouble sleeping I’m guessing you also spend a significant amount of time tossing and turning or laying in your bed not sleeping.
What we want to do here is make your brain associate your bed only with sleep, and I mean actual sleep not attempts to sleep. This means that you would only use your bed for sleeping. And even more, you would actually physically get out of bed if you are unable to sleep.
So if you wake up at night and can’t fall back asleep in say 15 mins you would need to actually move to a chair or the couch until you get sleepy enough to try again.
Eventually, and this is very well researched and documented, your bed would essentially induce sleep for you as you would only associate it with sleep. Think of it as a great placebo pill for good sleep.
This explains why for a lot of insomniacs getting into bed becomes an anxiety provoking event, as they have spent so much time in bed not sleeping for the bed equals sleeplessness.
Conditioning plays a crucial role in our lives and predicts much of our behavior, it’s about time we start using it as a tool.
Conditioning allows us to create habits that will sustain us when motivation and willpower are low. The only downside is that we may have to ruin a few songs in the process.