Hacking Belief > DIY Programmatic Prayers

FIRST, SOME GEOGRAPHY

It’s fascinating to look at how the Earth’s landscape has changed. Hills, Mountains, Abysses etc. And wonder what caused these major changes. You can actually bring it down to a few causes:

  • Large crashes might come to mind. A meteor hitting the Earth will probably change its landscape significantly.
  • Environment change, the shift in Earth's atmorsphere from nitrogen to oxygen allowed for the existence of life. Another environment (climate) change today is leading to the extinction of several species.
  • Small recurring events. A running river stream sculpting entire mountain chains
 Could it be that this small river caused these gigantic hills?

Could it be that this small river caused these gigantic hills?

Surprisingly, and we might not realize it quite often because we’re fascinated by large scale changes, small recurring events are the most powerful of all three. Darwin ends “the evolution of species” with the following:

“(...) That, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” - C. DARWIN

A TINY BIT OF PSYCHOLOGY

What fascinates me is the parallel we can draw with our own brains. BJ Fogg, director of persuasion lab at Stanford School lists three ways to change our behaviour:

  • Epiphanies - It’s a bit like a meteor, you read a book that amazes you and you’re like “this changed my life”. Can you pinpoint some big events, just top of mind, about which you can confidently say "this changed my life"?
  • Environment change - Bit of a personal story here. I was born in Lebanon, I left to study in Paris. Spent 6 years there then moved to work in London and spent 2 years there and am now living in Sao Paulo. Every step of the way was a major environmental change and I can confidently say I was not the same person when I left paris, when I left London and I won't be the same person once I leave Sao Paulo
  • Baby steps, or what BJ Fogg calls Tiny habits - These are the small things we do every day that change us in the long run. If you eat a cookie every day, everything being equal, you will put on 5kgs at the end of the year. If you choose to interact with negative people on a daily basis, you will end up being a more negative person at the end of the year.
“'Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it ... he who doesn't ... pays it” - A. EINSTEIN

And just like small recurring events change Earth’s landscape more than anything else, small recurring actions change our brains more than anything else. Thinking back to the event that “changed your life”, think at whether your life is really that different since then and whether what you've chosen to do on a daily basis wasn’t actually much more consequential.

 Religions are the oldest 1 Billion+ consumer facing companies. Facebook is the most recent one

Religions are the oldest 1 Billion+ consumer facing companies. Facebook is the most recent one

THE POWER OF RELIGION

I think no one understands this better than religions. Religions actually use the three behaviour tools BJ Fogg mentions:

  • Epiphanies - Buddhists use something called koans to blast your mind into enlightenment. Christians use the priests’ sermons and big life events like marriage and funerals to remind you of the importance of God, forgiveness, love etc.
  • Environment - You hang out with a new group of people, you read a new kind of book, you go to new places, you are immersed in a new physical, social and mental environment
  • Small steps - Meditation for buddhists, Prayers for christians
“(...) Religions do not stop trying to encourage their followers to be good. They give them commandments and rituals, they deliver them sermons and ask them to rehearse lessons in prayers and in songs.”
A. DE BOTTON

Now the thing is, I don’t believe in anything spiritual. I don’t believe in a spirit. Though I’ve been to more spiritual events than most people I know, I am a materialist - in the philosophical sense of the term. I believe there are things microscopes can't see ... yet. Maybe it’s because I studied in a catholic school. But I’ve actually given the question of God a lot of thought. I’m not interested in prayers that remind me of the glory of God or the Virgin Mary. These things don’t help.

Through the years, I’ve developed my own faith, my own ideas that I wanted to keep top of mind. Now you may ask, in a time where you can google anything, why try to remember these things. The answer is simple, Googling isn’t fast enough when I’m about to get in a fight with someone or when I’m about to ask a girl to dance with me. If the answer to my doubts isn’t in my mind at that precise moment, however much books I’ve read about self-confidence, it is completely useless. So should I write a prayer with everything I want to keep in mind and read it every day? That’s exactly what I did.

 My Evernote Morning Prayer

My Evernote Morning Prayer

PROGRAMMATIC PRAYERS

But there’s a couple of things that didn’t work with this approach:

  1. Dynamicity - The set of things I want to learn is constantly growing and changing. Every day, I’m reading something insightful on my Kindle and some things emerge that I want to keep for my personal growth
  2. Meta-Learning - I’m not sure reading the same prayer every day is the best way to learn its content. The proof is I don’t know how to say my christian prayers anymore

In other words, I needed a dynamic prayer and a smarter way to learn. So to start I just created an IFTTT recipe to send my Kindle highlights to, what had become, My Evernote "Prayer" Notebook. But I was still manually updating my prayer and that didn’t work.

 Internet Recipe to send Kindle highlights to My Evernote Prayer and refreshing its content

Internet Recipe to send Kindle highlights to My Evernote Prayer and refreshing its content

Then came the muse :) Some time ago, I ran across an article about how to remember anything and that, ironically, I had completely forgot about. It was a Wired article about a man called Piotr Wozniak and it had the curve below in it.

It was suddenly obvious to me that this was precisely my problem and that someone had solved it in the past already. Piotr Wozniak had created a software called Supermemo to turn his ideas about spaced repetition into a practical tool. Supermemo and similar software like Anki and Mnemosyne is beautiful in that it sends the right flashcards for you to read on a daily basis and optimally remember the information you want.

 The essence of the Supermemo algorithm

The essence of the Supermemo algorithm

Now people who use Supermemo or systems like Anki and Mnemosyne try to learn languages, vocal words, famous quotes. I wanted to become a better person. So I chunked my prayer into pieces and I put it into Mnemosyne effectively creating a prayer to prompt my brain with the best values at the best time.

HOLY CHERRY ON THE CAKE

Still. There was one missing link. We all have good intentions. Yet we rarely follow through. The key is to make it effortless to do the things we set out to do. I had to make it  unavoidable to read these prayer chunks every day even if I missed the Mnemosyne reminders. So instead, I chunked the prayer down into emails for me to get in my inbox and used followupthen.com. That way it was impossible to ignore or miss my daily programmatic prayers.

 Bridging Mnemosyne and e-mail wasn't obvious so I'm currently using followupthen.com

Bridging Mnemosyne and e-mail wasn't obvious so I'm currently using followupthen.com

So back to the image I started with and my story about evolution. A stream of small recurring drops of water on a rock will eventually pierce through the rock. But us humans are no longer subject to evolution, we are living in neo-evolution. Our environment doesn’t determine us, but rather we determine and change our environment.

So imagine we make that drop of water more acidic and we choose the content we want. Imagine we make it fall at the precise moment where the rock is most likely to be affected. Imagine we expose our brains to the information we choose at the exact right time. We’ll have found a way to re-wire our brains. Welcome to the future of hacking mindsets and beliefs :)