I’ve learned a lot about indifference in the past year. I always thought of indifference as the razor sharp tool one develops when he doesn’t care. Indifference is deeper than not caring. Indifference is the most powerful tool in the behavioral change arsenal.
Indifference isn’t an active feeling. You only know you’ve developed indifference when you look back on a period of time and realize you didn’t think about something at all. If you are thinking about how you don’t care, you’re not indifferent. You’re preoccupied.
Indifference can’t be developed actively. Indifference is the process of making a thing irrelevant. It’s using a new iPhone and realizing, months later, you haven’t touched your Blackberry or missed it at all.
Indifference is a feeling that will baffle you. You will marvel at questions like how did I, after being addicted to my Blackberry for so long, just stop caring?
We often mistake apathy or angst for indifference. We say we don’t care about the negative people, bad habits or the things we keep doing even though we say to want to stop.
Over the past year, I quit drinking, overhauled my food intake, got in shape and got my mental house in order. In the process I lost 30 pounds, dropped to 13% body fat, developed an unbreakable gym routine, relaunched our fund and kicked off countless (mostly bad) business ideas. I changed how (and with whom) I spend my time. It is not an exaggeration to say I am a different person.
None of these achievements was intentional. I didn’t set out with a master plan or even a small plan. I didn’t download a magic app or read a diet book.
In each case, I found a small habit that conflicted with my view of how I wanted things to be in some measure of future time and replaced it with something else. I repeated that multiple times and quickly the habit changes compounded.
At that point, I had not yet read The Power of Habit so I didn’t realize that what I was doing was a scientifically superior path to creating lasting changes. I just knew that by removing one habit without a replacement for the chemical releases it causes for my brain, there would be a void and I would fail.
Why haven’t I fallen off the wagon? Indifference.
I am indifferent to alcohol, junk food, toxic people, status comparisons and so many things that a year ago I was addicted to.
We are not programmed to want things that are bad for us. We do not specifically need Jack In The Box. We don’t need negative people. We don’t need alcohol. We need the dopamine and serotonin releases from the deliciousness of a Meaty Breakfast Burrito. We need the releases brought by social validation.
When you consciously know what you want your world to look like you can spot the habits that conflict with that world view. In those moments of lucidity, you know what to eliminate but have no idea how to do go about tackling it. It’s at this point that some of us jump on fad diet plans or “vacations” from the habit.
The problem with that approach is that science proves you can’t simply eliminate those habits en masse overnight. You can stop yourself from drinking that extra glass of wine but you can’t stop your brain from wanting the chemical releases it triggers.
To develop indifference you have to make the bad habit obsolete. Think of a habit like an iPhone. A new iPhone and an old iPhone do mostly the same things. They are 99% identical. But the 1% of things the new iPhone does is exciting. If someone bought you a new iPhone you would look at the two side by side and choose the new one.
Want to get in shape? Create an unwinnable situation for your brain. Set an early morning appointment at the gym with a trainer or a friend. After a few weeks you’ll find the early mornings after an extra glass of wine or a late night in front of the computer make you groggy.
You’ll be miserable at the gym. You’ll want to go to bed earlier. And that glass of wine doesn’t make the mornings any easier. Your brain, high on dopamine releases from the gym, isn’t starved. And before you know it, the bad habits disappear and as a bonus you developed a daily exercise routine.
Want to drop junk food and eat more vegetables? Start eating tons of vegetables. Or as I do, drink them. Fill up. Your brain will be flush with nutrients it loves and the brain chemicals will flow. But you’ll find there simply aren’t enough hours in the day and space in your stomach to eat the crap and the vegetables. You’ll have created an unwinnable conflict, giving your lucid brain the chance to make the logical decision, vegetables win.
These are trivial examples. True indifference is more personal. No matter the subject, the science is the same.
Our monkey brains don’t discriminate between available sources of dopamine and serotonin release. They will do everything possible to get the chemical releases from wherever they can get it, good or bad.
To drop bad habits we must add good ones first. There’s only so much room in the car. Once it’s full, something has to go. And the choice is easy.
And that is how we develop indifference.
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This post originally appeared at Zach Ware's Notebook.