Perhaps you’ve heard of the butterfly effect. It’s a term from chaos theory.

…perhaps you’ve heard of chaos theory. I had an extra slot that needed to be filled in college, and took a semester-long seminar on the popular-science version of what chaos theory was. Math was minimal. We read Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics by Gary Zukav, Emergence: From Chaos to Order by John Holland, Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick, and some other books I can’t remember now. Chaos theory is the idea that true randomness is rare, if not non-existent, and that instead of throwing our hands up in frustration at the vagaries of the world, we should be studying non-linear math, because fractals and Brownian motion (e.g., the movement of cream in hot coffee) and weather patterns are all non-linear, and we can study them now.

…and perhaps you’ve heard of non-linear math. As a non-mathematician, my best explanation is that non-linear math is when you plug a number N into a formula and get a result X, then put in a slightly different number, N+.01, and get result X time one bajillion. The results you get out of a formula cannot be described in a line or a curve, but are non-linear. This is where fractals come from. Pretty!

Anyway, the butterfly effect.

The butterfly effect describes a situation in real life where non-linear math applies, causing seemingly random results in the real world. Make one small change to the flapping in the wings of a butterfly, the theory goes, and you might create a storm. Nobody knows: predictions involving the weather don’t follow any kind of straight line.

We are, however, discovering how to describe and predict the behavior of non-linear results as a whole, if not in every specific instance.

Why is this important?

I’ve been trying to explain how habits work in several contexts, and I’m struggling to get past people’s ideas of what a useful habit is. It seems almost universal for people to say things like, “I’m going to lose weight this year!” or “I’m going to be more financially responsible!”

What I’ve observed is that saying those things is a type of self-sabotage.

Here’s the process:

  • Make some kind of resolution, like losing weight or getting rid of debt.
  • Break that resolution down into smaller steps that are essentially the same thing, only smaller: eat fewer calories today, spend less money today.
  • Fail to accomplish the resolution.
  • Waste time, brainpower, and happiness continuously trying and failing to accomplish resolutions.
  • Envy people who have accomplished something.
  • Ask them how they did it.
  • Ignore advice, because it doesn’t look relevant.

The problem is that most people focus on results and don’t actually figure out how they’re going to accomplish the result, either on the large or small scale.

We tell ourselves to be stronger, happier, or richer.

How?

Crickets.

There’s a piece of advice that circulates around the popular financial book circuit. It goes something like this:

If you stop drinking one fancy coffee per day at a coffee shop, you will become rich!

That particular piece of advice is predicated on a level of financial success that most people who are struggling financially can’t reach—but those books aren’t aimed toward those of us who can’t afford to drink a fancy coffee per day. For the books’ presumed audiences (middle-class people with a bunch of disposable income that they’re wasting), it’s reasonably good advice.

If a person who drank a cup of fancy coffee from a coffee shop every day followed this plan, they would:

  • Save the price of one fancy cup of coffee per day, and
  • Save the calories of one fancy cup of coffee per day.

Over time, this person would naturally lose weight and have more money, unless they make correspondingly stupid choices elsewhere.

Usually the books also talk about how to stop drinking that one extra cup of fancy coffee per day, with solutions like:

  • Buy an espresso machine ($100) or an individual coffee-pod maker (e.g., a Keurig) ($80) and make your own fancy coffee.
  • Ask yourself when you actually need a cup of coffee, versus when you habitually have one or just want the experience of drinking fancy coffee, and drink something else instead (like tea) for those other times.
  • Completely wean yourself off the coffee habit.
  • Switch to plain drip coffee (it’s cheaper).

The save-money-via-changing-your-coffee-habits plan can be extrapolated to something like this:

  • Determine one thing you’re not happy about and set a vague goal related to it (“be debt-free!”).
  • Determine one habit that might be related, and that seems relatively easy to control.
  • Find ways to change that habit that are actual actions, rather than just telling yourself to do less of that habit (except when going cold turkey, generally considered a radical, advanced, and unnecessary technique in the books I’ve read).
  • If that particular change doesn’t work or it’s too hard to stick to, try another one.
  • In short: don’t force yourself to keep a goal. Find a vulnerable habit, and change it.

For the right audience, it’s a good plan.

But let’s say you don’t have problems with coffee. Let’s say you have (ahem) problems with buying too many books. You have a house full of books that you picked up at used bookstores, thrift stores, flea markets, and friends who had to get rid of their books—free books! You have an ereader full of free books and books that you bought on sale. Once or twice a year, you buy new releases from your favorite authors, but mostly you go for books that are an excellent deal. You also check a lot of books out from the library.

(This is me, by the way. I also have the expense of research and business books that I directly need for my writing career, but let’s leave those aside.)

Guess which books get read?

The ones from the library.

Not the ones I paid for, or even the free ones. The ones I got from the library.

Why?

They have due dates.

I have spent years trying to establish healthier habits around buying books. I tried to limit the number of books per month I could buy. I tried to limit the dollar amount. I was serious about this.

I failed.

Things got worse: more books built up, more money spent.

Until I found the vulnerable habit. The library.

Right now:

  • Books I haven’t read yet: I can’t buy it even if it’s on sale, unless it’s not at the library.
  • Books I have read or books I can’t get at the library: I can buy it, but only if it’s on sale (under $4.99 plus tax).
  • For every library book I read, I have to read a non-library book (to use up my already-purchased books).

If I haven’t read the book yet, I don’t know if I want to keep it. If I have read the book, I know if I want to keep it, and I know whether I want a print copy (for books of my heart) or if an ebook copy would be better (as in, the thousand-page books that are just easier to read as ebooks).

I fudge the line for short story collections and anthologies. I’ll buy them without having read them, but only on sale. I love short stories, though, and I never give collections or anthologies away. I also sometimes fudge a line if a writer whose work I like has a sale. But those two things make up maybe $5-$10 a month, which is a figure I can live with.

Figuring all this out wasn’t an easy, mindless process. It was much more complex and time-consuming than going, “In 2020, I will buy fewer books!” I’ve been messing around with my book-buying habits since the last time we moved, in 2015. I’m not going to tell you how much money I spent on books, and I didn’t track numbers well or sort between fiction and research/business books, but the change in yearly book spending from 2015 to 2019 was at least $500.

My habits resulted in my goal being achieved, but I didn’t try to achieve my goal. I just kept an eye on it.

So, tentatively speaking, here’s what to do:

  • Identify a problem.
  • Guesstimate a goal.
  • Pick one small, doable action or rule that may or may not help achieve the goal, but you won’t have to work too hard at to find out. (If it’s pleasant to do, even better.)
  • Try that for a couple of months.
  • If you’re not seeing a change, try something else.
  • If you’re seeing a change but it could be better, tweak.

Don’t suffer. If you’re suffering, you’re burning up willpower. Burning up willpower almost always fails.

If you’re doing something like running marathons, you are going to suffer and burn up willpower and work hard, but if you make sure that you’re getting more pleasure out of running than what it costs you, then the same habit-determining principles should still apply.

What habits do is apply a non-linear solution to a problem. A slightly different solution may have greatly different results (for example, if I defined books on sale as “more than $1 off the original price,” then I doubt I would have saved much money; likewise, if I defined books on sale as “$.99 or less,” then I doubt I would have stuck to the plan—I would have been too frustrated with it—and I also would have spent more money).

Habits, in short, are how you nudge the chaos-winged butterfly. You can hope and dream all you want—you can set all kinds of unrealistic goals—but if you don’t nudge that butterfly, nothing will change.

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