I help smart sceptics who like to question things use neuroscience, coaching & philosophy to create a  better life and maybe even a better planet.

Messy Middle Theory – Habits + Meaning

Rock Jocks & Meaning

There is usually at least one session at archaeological conferences (and sometimes several) reserved for ‘rock jocks’. When I first started going to conferences as an undergraduate, I didn’t know enough to avoid these sessions, although I quickly learnt.

‘Rock jocks’ is name given to people delivering papers containing detailed analysis of lithics (stone artefacts) recovered from archaeological contexts. It is used somewhat disparagingly by those who aren’t interested in peering at multiple graphs somehow explaining how a large lump of rock ended up being smaller, more useful, bits of rock – ie tools. It is also a nerdy badge of honour for those who spend their days taking multiple measurements of a single stone fragment, undertaking detailed analysis of manufacturing debitage and/or fitting broken pieces of stone together. Not to mention those who recreate the manufacturing themselves (much harder than it looks).

The reason why I now (generally) avoid such sessions is because too often, after sitting through a paper with immaculately detailed graphs and regression diagrams the question would arise… where are the people? Many rock jocks have gone so far down a rabbit hole that they have forgotten our aim as archaeologists is to study the behaviour of people in the past. A 30-minute talk on numbers and measurements of rocks without any link to the people who worked them – is dry indeed. Time far better spent writing your own paper that you’re supposed to give tomorrow – or in the bar gossiping with mates you haven’t seen since the last conference.

This is not to say that there is no interesting lithic analysis. Also, this is not a problem with rock jocks alone. More generally, archaeologists struggle to connect the detailed analysis of what we recover from sites to the bigger picture of what it means about the people who left it behind. It is a connection that needs to be explicit for any interpretation to be believable.


Images from (Holdaway & Stern 2004 ) A Record in Stone

Middle Range Theory

One of the ways that archaeologists sought to bridge the gap between archaeological data and meaningful analysis was Middle Range Theory. It was originally developed from 1950s sociology and popularised in archaeology by Lewis Binford. Its main focus was the use of ethnographic studies (studies of modern hunter gatherers or historic records) to link human behaviour to patterns of material culture remains. This was then used to infer past human behaviour from archaeological patterning. By the time I was at university this theory was already being challenged due to many limitations. The assumption that past behaviour can be inferred by current humans clearly tends to the circular. Other criticisms are that the use of middle range theory can be overgeneralised and too focused on environmental influence rather than human (individual and cultural) agency. Archaeologists have since tried to develop more holistic models using broader based understanding of past societies in specific contexts. Whole theses have been written on the success or otherwise of different frameworks and my intention is not to summarise these here. The point is that the link between data and the meaning we give it continues to be something that needs careful examination if explanations of the past are to be useful.

What does this have to do with coaching Vanessa? (I hear you cry!)

I’ve noticed that when I’m coaching or being coached there is often a dance between focusing on the big picture or the small details. I find that if I am ‘stuck’ on a big goal it is usually because I haven’t detailed the small steps needed to stay on the path. Or conversely when I can’t stick to small step habits it is frequently because I haven’t defined the bigger picture ‘why’ I am choosing to take those steps or what they are moving towards. Prioritising one or the other without considering the bridge between them is almost guaranteed to stall change.

I think changing habits and setting big goals requires some kind of middle range theory. This had led me to think of what I like to call…

Messy Middle Theory

The learning from archaeology that I have applied to goals and habit change is that there is more to it than knowing where you want to go and the steps to get there. A key thing is the back and forward between the two – big picture to small picture and back again. I have found coaching is really helpful when I forget to build that bridge between my goals and my daily steps in the right direction. The following tools have been useful to me in developing a good Messy Middle practice.

Understand your why

You need to have a really well understood reason for doing something. If you are getting fit because you think you ‘should’ and haven’t really thought about the reasons why it matters to you personally chances are you may start with taking some steps, but struggle to follow through when you wake up in the morning and it’s cold and you really don’t feel like getting out of bed and doing that work out.

Turtle steps

These are the tiny steps that you think aren’t going to make any difference – smaller than baby steps. If you need to start something and you are not getting going think of the smallest step you can take, a step so small it’s embarrassing or laughable. Then do it. For example, if you want to write a novel – start with 100 words a day, or if that’s too much – start with opening the notebook/document you are intending to write in and looking at it every day. Or 3 times a week, or whatever works for you. You’re brain will tell you this is pointless, but that is a lie. You will find that some days you do more than your turtle step, but even if you don’t you’ve still done your bit. When the turtle steps become automatic you can always increase – write 200 words etc. It’s creating the habit and expectation that sets you up for success.


Bribing yourself is always an option. Decide on something you want and make sure you follow through when you do the thing. This can also work while you’re doing the thing. Can’t get motivated to do your filing? Set up some kind of reward while you’re doing it… play fun music loud, drink a beer, make it more fun. The flip side of this is not beating yourself up when you don’t do a habit perfectly. It’s amazing how quickly brains can jump to forgetting the progress we have made and berate us for ‘slipping up’. When I wanted to turn around a lifelong habit of not being a regular exerciser, I started with working out once a week. When that became a (mostly) regular habit I upped it to 3 times. I had to remind myself when my brain wanted to tell me that I had ‘failed’ those weeks I only worked out twice that just a short time ago twice a week seemed wildly improbable, and I had made amazing progress.

Have fun with failure

Some of my writer friends have targets for rejections. You can turn it into a kind of game. The concept isn’t new, you can aim for 100 (or whatever) rejections in a year. The idea is that the more you put things out there, the closer you get to the thing you’re aiming for. It also builds your tolerance to disappointment which is helpful when shooting for big goals.

I’ve also embraced the concept of sharing something you stuffed up or ‘failed at’ every night at the dinner table. This helps to normalise the process. We don’t get anywhere without making mistakes. If you are going to give up when things go wrong… well you know how that turns out. Having a strategy in mind for the inevitable ‘failure’ moments will also help you move forward to the next success.

You’re not alone

Explanation of culture and particularly cultural change in archaeology involves continued re-examination of the models we use to interpret the data we find. Habit change also has many moving parts and is not always (ever?) simple either. If you struggle to see how to get from the small steps to the big change or end up focusing too much on one or the other, you’re not alone!

I tend to be all about the habits, until I’m not and forget why I even started… or I am so fixated on how amazing everything is going to be when I have achieved the goal, I forget to make time to actually do the small things. There are things that can help like the tools I outline above. But/and you also need to remind yourself that it’s a process. Stepping back and evaluating both where you are and where you are going will help to keep the process moving.

I hope that this has given you some new ideas about approaching your own goals and habits. If you want to dive deeper, I have written a short guide with lots more information about habit change to get you started. You can sign up to receive it here.

As always, please get in touch with any questions or to let me know what you think – I love hearing from you.