Beyond Productivity Porn — Moving From Generic Advice to Behavior Design 

igor-ovsyannykov-225463Lately I’ve been crap-detecting the whole  topic of productivity and discovering why tips and tricks can fail. So what are the alternatives?

Well, one is to follow Tiago Forté’s suggestions for creating a personal knowledge base.

Another option is to apply design thinking to your own behavior. For guidance let’s again turn to Tiago, whose thinking on this topic is both provocative and practical.

Anything can be designed

Start from the premise that you can design anything. Design thinking is not just for visual art or commercial products. You can design services. You can design meetings, conferences, and other events. You can processes, workflows, and habits as well.

In this broader sense, design thinking is for all of us. The essence of this approach is:

  • Observing people to discover when and where they encounter problems
  • Testing possible solutions
  • Implementing the solutions that work

(For more details, see Design Thinking 101 by Sarah Gibbons.)

If Productivity 1.0 is about tips and tricks that are endlessly recycled in the bullshit industrial complex, then Productivity 2.0 is about  designing your own behavior. More specifically, says Tiago, it’s about “framing your problems in the context of a system that can be optimized through small experiments.” There are three key terms in that sentence:

  • The focus is on your problems, which — when precisely defined — are unique to you.
  • You design a system of behavior that’s objective — separate from you, so it can be measured and evaluated.
  • You optimize the results of your system by experimenting with specific new behaviors.

This, in short, is how you move from generic advice to strategies that are individually tested and integrated with everything else that you do.

Focus on habits

Tiago suggests that you focus your experiments on habits. Habits are basic units of behavior that can be analyzed, changed, and tested. This makes them ideal for design thinking.

To begin, remember that the brain is a habit-making machine. Your brain:

  • Scans for triggers — such as physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, locations, or the presence of specific people — that create an impulse to act.
  • Deploys a behavior that ranges from simple to complex in response to that impulse.
  • Looks for whether the behavior is rewarded with a pleasant feeling.

If all of the above elements are present, then a habit loop is established.

The great news is that we can consciously choose to practice new behaviors in response to specific triggers in our lives. And once new habits are established, we no longer have to rely on self-discipline, willpower, or motivation to maintain positive behaviors. We create self-sustaining routines instead.

Design small experiments

The key is designing small habit changes. One reason for the failure of many self-help books and other programs for behavior change is that they tell us to implement massive new systems. (This is a common criticism of the Getting Things Done method.)

Another option is to start with a tiny new behavior — such as flossing one tooth every day — and experience immediate success. Once such small behaviors take root, they grow naturally — e.g., from flossing one tooth daily to flossing all of them. Verify this for yourself by doing BJ Fogg’s free Tiny Habits program. Another useful resource is the  Quantified Self movement.

Tiago adds another key element here — stopping to analyze the results of your habit change experiment and think like a scientist. This means asking:

  • Do you want to continue the new habit? Not all behavior changes are worth sustaining. For example, Tiago designed a habit to drink 9 cups of water per day. Though he succeeded at this behavior change, he decided not to continue it. The benefits were negligible, and it led to a lot of bathroom time.
  • Did you isolate the key variables? Say that you want to exercise more. Your habit is to lay out your exercise clothes every night (new behavior) right after you brush your teeth (trigger). And sure enough, you do end up taking a jog every morning right after you wake up. But did your trigger actually work? Perhaps the weather simply got nicer and you suddenly felt like exercising more.
  • Do you want to redesign the habit? Based on your answers to the above questions, consider choosing a new trigger, a new behavior, or both. Over time, you’ll move closer to results that you can replicate — and lessons that you can apply to other habit experiments.

A key trap to avoid is blaming unsuccessful habit changes on character defects: “I’m just weak-willed.” Or, “I don’t have any self-discipline.” Self-blame does not lead to useful insights. Tweak your habit design instead.

Put small changes in a big context

The irony of changing tiny habits is that we acquire a huge meta-skill — the ability to change just about any behavior. And this in turn promotes even more fundamental shifts.

One is self-awareness. As Tiago says, “Use the habit experiment as a vehicle for self-understanding — knowing the leverage points that work specifically for you.”

Beyond this, notice any changes in your self-narrative. No habit change by itself is likely to transform your life. But consistent success with behavior design can shake up the way that you talk about yourself: Wow: I really can change my life.

Image by Igor Ovsyannykov