Going Beyond Tips to Experimental Habit Change

Much of popular literature for behavior change — both online and offline — sinks to tip-dispensing. Authors crank out reams of bulleted and numbered lists aimed at easy change and instant gratification.

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Want to make more money? Hundreds of bloggers will give you quick tips for that.

Want to boost your productivity? Tip-based books for that abound.

Want to attract a lover? Tips for that are all over the Web.

Much of this stuff is curated lists of tips based on other lists of tips — second- and third-hand content based on God knows what theory or research. Sean Blanda gives it an apt name — the bullshit industrial complex.

Tips might satisfy our desire for easy wins and quick results. But what about the long-term? We run into three problems here.

Tips ignore context

“Now, don’t get me wrong,” Annie Murphy Paul writes in The Tyranny of Tips. “Sometimes a tip — the right bit of information at the right time — is a lifesaver.” More often, however, tips “skim lightly across the surface of our attention and then disappear.”

Annie claims that behavior change is often tied to context. For example, she cites a study in which kids who understood why a balanced diet promotes health made better food choices than kids who were simply told to eat certain foods.

Tips ignore character

A teacher once asked William Zinsser — author of On Writing Well — to give students some writing tips.

Zinsser’s reply: “I don’t do tips”:

Tips can make someone a better writer but not necessarily a good writer. That’s a larger package — a matter of character. Golfing is more than keeping the left arm straight. Every good golfer is a complex engine that runs on ability, ego, determination, discipline, patience, confidence, and other qualities that are self-taught. So it is with writers and all creative artists. If their values are solid their work is likely to be solid.

His point applies to tips for doing anything. You can implement a “life hack” — an incremental change in behavior—and take a chance on the results. But molding character calls for the slow, steady acquisition of new skills and insights. And this is the work of a lifetime.

Tips ignore culture

Beyond individual character is the behavior of other people. Each of us is embedded in multiple cultures — the culture of our family, our coworkers, and our friend groups. These are powerful contexts that can quickly undermine our ability to implement tips.

Joe Lee, medical director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Youth Continuum, gives an example of this perspective as it applies to parents. In Recovering My Kid: Parenting Young Adults in Treatment and Beyond, he writes:

These days, so many of the parenting tips are based on superficial matters. The conversations are about finding the right activities, having enough activities, staying cool as parents, learning to talk on your child’s level, and the like…. I emphasize that parents need to invest in their family culture and maintain it over time, much like they would invest over the long-term in a savings account or a college fund. Only then will the resources be available in a family’s time of need.

A different approach — experimental habit change

We can cut through vast swaths of tips by seeing them as invitations to run personal experiments with habit change. This is the perspective of Tiago Forte, the most sophisticated thinker about productivity that I’ve found.

Why focus on habits instead of isolated tips that are implemented at random? Because, Tiago writes, habits are Minimum Viable Behaviors (MVBs) that occur in context:

They have a clear beginning, middle, and end (cue, behavior, reward), making them easy to define and identify when they appear. The good ones tend to be internally coherent and inherently rewarding, thus self-sustaining. They are situated in a physical and social context, which makes them socially acceptable and integrate relatively seamlessly into daily life.

Habits are ideal for testing. They have a binary/on-off/yes-no nature — either you do a habit or you don’t. This makes them relatively easy to measure.

Tiago gives an example — his experiments with measuring levels of happiness throughout the day. He did this as a participant in Harvard University’s TrackYourHappiness project. Via a mobile app, Tiago got notifications at random times throughout the day. These were questions such as:

  • How happy are you right now?
  • When was the last time you exercised?
  • Where are you right now?

“By cross-referencing my answers, the app generated reports of which people, places, and activities make me happiest,” Tiago adds.

With a single experiment, Tiago got past the generic happiness tips. He gathered data to discover which habits actually made a difference for him.

The same thing is possible for any of us. All it takes is a willingness to play with habit change, taking the attitude that there is no failure in the attempt — only continuous learning.

Meditate, Move, Destroy — Robert Greene on Writing

Robert Greene wrote several best-selling books, including Mastery, The 48 Laws of Power, The Art of Seduction, and The 50th Law (with 50 Cent). Though I have qualms about the Machavellian philosophy in these books, I am fascinated by Robert’s writing process.

330px-Robert_Greene_B&W“What I learned is that willpower, the intensity of desire, and practice can take us to levels of performance we never thought possible,” Robert writes. He suggests the following strategies.

Exercise

Like Haruki Murakami, Robert compares writing books to running a marathon. There’s nothing glamorous about the process, which can involve periods of physical and mental depletion.

To prevent this, says Greene, develop a rigorous exercise routine. Avoid boredom by alternating between several activities, such as running and biking.

Gradually increase the intensity of your daily exercise. If you reach a point where you feel sustained tiredness, then back off a little. The goal is a plateau of activity that gives you more energy throughout the day.

Meditate

Robert does at least 30 minutes of Zen meditation daily. This increases his ability to concentrate and let unexpected insights emerge.

Research to discover an original structure for your ideas

To research a new book, Robert reads 200 to 300 existing books on his topic. This takes about a year.

He takes notes in an old-school way, writing by hand on index cards:

When I read a book, I am looking for the essential elements in the work that can be used to create the strategies and stories that appear in my books. As I am reading a book I underline important passages and sections and put notes (called marginalia) on the side.

After I’m done reading I’ll often put it aside for up to a week and think deeply about the lessons and key stories that could be used for my book project. I then go back and put these important sections on notecards. A good book will generate 20 to 30 notecards, while a bad book will generate two or three notecards.

Essentially, Robert deconstructs existing books into smaller pieces and looks for new relationships between them. He destroys the original structures in order to create a new one. Eventually the table of contents for his next book is born.

Cultivate “negative capability”

Negative capability — a concept from the poet John Keats — means tolerating uncertainty, ambiguity, and paradox. This prods us to think in new ways that resolve apparent contradictions.

To practice negative capability, develop a habit of observing people without judging them. Try to see the world from their point of view.

Also, as you begin a writing project, list your current assumptions about the topic. Then throw out or suspend as many as possible.

Think like an outsider

If you have training in a field that’s not directly related to your project, then use this as an advantage. What concepts from this field can you “import”? The answers will help you ask new questions and find novel connections between ideas.

Subvert your current patterns of thinking

Seek out facts and theories that contradict your current conclusions. Then ask why and how they can exist. When studying an event, ask yourself how it could have unfolded in a different way.

Use active imagination

For example, Henry Ford imagined workers standing still and working with auto parts that came to them. Result: the assembly line.

Use notebooks, drawings, and diagrams to visualize new ideas. Translate ideas into predictions and even physical models that you can test. Iterate and see what works — even if it takes you in a surprising direction.

In short, think of creativity as fusing two entities within you:

  • The child, who explores the world with few assumptions and thinks in fluid, flexible ways
  • The adult, who uses knowledge, experience, and observation to refine first thoughts into working theories

Note: For more about how Robert works, go to my sources for this post:

Avoiding Stories That Undermine Your Credibility

“Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him,” said Ernest Hemingway. “It also should have a manual drill and a crank handle in case the machine breaks down.”

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Though it’s not exactly a warm fuzzy, Hemingway’s insight can save your reputation.

One place that crap easily enters our writing is the odd anecdote that’s inaccurate or simply untrue. Consider the following examples.

The infamous boiling frog

You’ve probably heard this one — an anecdote that’s often told to illustrate the dangers of ignoring gradual change. Though countless versions exist, the key points are these:

  • If you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out.
  • However, if you put the frog in a pot of lukewarm water and gradually heat it to boiling, the frog will fail to notice the temperature change. In fact, the frog will sit there until it boils to death.
  • Likewise, human beings often fail — to their peril — to notice subtle and dangerous changes in their environment.

There’s just one problem with this story: It’s crap.

In Next Time, What Say We Boil A Consultant, the Consultant Debunking Unit at Fast Company quotes two biologists who say that the story radically underestimates frog intelligence. As soon the water gets hot enough, in fact, the darn things will leap out faster than heck.

The Fast Company folks verified this by running their own experiment:

We placed Frog A into a pot of cold water and applied moderate heat. At 4.20 seconds, it safely exited the pot with a leap of 24 centimeters. We then placed Frog B into a pot of lukewarm water and applied moderate heat. At 1.57 seconds, it safely exited the pot with a leap of 57 centimeters.

Those legendary earners from Yale

Equally infamous is the “Yale Goal Study.” Again, there are many variations. The main events are these:

  • In 1953 (or 1933, or 1943, depending on the storyteller) researchers interviewed members of Yale’s graduating class, asking the students whether they had written down any goals for the rest of their lives.
  • Twenty years later, researchers tracked down the same group of graduates.
  • The 3 per cent of graduates who had written goals accumulated more personal wealth than the other 97 per cent of their classmates combined.

This is such a compelling story. We just want it to be true.

“There is just one small problem,” notes Richard Wiseman, an experimental psychologist and author of 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot. “As far as anyone can tell, the experiment never actually took place.”

The Fast Company Consultant Debunking Unit, which also tried to verify this story, confirms Wiseman on this point.

The moral of this story

Only tell stories that you can verify based on:

  • Direct personal experiences (preferably with objective witnesses involved)
  • Interviews with credible experts that confirm each other
  • Publications from credible sources that you can cite in an accepted format