Rate of Change Part 3: Intention and Habit


I secretly hate this word. Most of the time I see it used it is referring to some ideal where every decision is cognitively aligned with some higher purpose, those decisions are always correct and time is never wasted.

Additionally, intentionality and attention are closely related and frequently conflated.

For my purposes what I mean by intentionality is most closely related to will. We intend to do something and we do that thing, as opposed to the easier thing, or the more short-sighted thing, or the more immediately gratifying thing.

It’s important to remember that we wouldn’t behave in certain ways if we didn’t secretly enjoy it. Be it stuffing our face with unhealthy foods or getting involved in a dramatic Facebook thread, it takes a strong will (or a life changing experience) to overcome behaviors that are contrary to our intent. (However I will be the first to advocate for a healthy hedonism in life.)

I wonder what's on TV

There are a lot of biological reasons for this and I don’t really want to explore them right now. From a more philosophical perspective, Viktor Frankl would say that our will to pleasure and our will power come from a frustrated will to meaning, which I frequently conflate with intentionality for my own purposes.

Meaning/calling/will/intentionality…they all describe different characteristics of the self that we all accept as existent but have a hard time capturing practically either emotionally or intellectually. But it is the kind of thing we know when we see it.


Eventually, if we will ourselves to do something long enough, it becomes habit and our tired will can take a breather (before starting in on the next thing). I have a long-standing and slightly overly-obsessive interest in meaning and identity formation, but also with habit formation and behavior modification; and specifically in regards to the latter, technological tools that intend to help us change.

Before tools, however, are simply techniques.

The first is quantification; keeping track of the behavior you want to change. It works for a variety of reasons–by drawing our attention to the issue in question, by illuminating facts about ourselves we otherwise would not see–and it probably works for a variety of non-obvious reasons as well.

I will point you to the Quantified Self website as a rather complete and always expanding compendium of information on the subject. I will also point you to this video, which has a much more personal take on the same subject:

The other really important technique is accountability. This one is well known, but I have found this one thing to be helpful: don’t bother setting up accountability agreements with people particularly close to you and, if possible, arrange to be held accountable by a person whose primary interaction with you is around said accountability. Trainer, coach, therapist, pastor.

Another form of accountability is the use of a commitment device, however I find they are best used in conjunction with–not as a replacement for–good old-fashioned human accountability.

Other techniques include a Ulysses pact (really a specific kind of commitment device) (refer also to this commentary), aversion therapy and a host of others. In fact there are tons of good books on this subject that I should probably have read before writing a few paragraphs on the subject.


Previously: Hard Work

Next up: Trust, Humility, Balance and Sleep