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.