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.


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.

Evaluating Self-Help — Can You Test the Ideas?

woeurieThe best self-help books are grounded in psychological theory and research. Yet both of these have their limits. Even a self-help technique that works like magic for most people in a respected study might fizzle for you.

Your best option is to translate an author’s ideas into new behaviors and monitor the results in your own life. Cognitive behavioral therapists refer to this as behavioral activation, or running a behavioral experiment. There’s a robust literature on these topics. Following are some core themes.

Check your mindset

Josh Kaufman, author of books about rapid skill acquisition and running a business, suggests that you be willing to see your life as a series of experiments. In effect, you adopt the mindset of a scientist who’s studying the effects of a specific behavior change on a sample of one — yourself.

This mental change is subtle and significant. It starts from the assumptions that you can change your behavior and that it’s worthwhile to make the effort. If you have a fixed mindset based on a belief that you ultimately cannot change, then you’ll doom your behavior experiment from the start.

Choose a new behavior

See if you can translate an author’s ideas into physical, visible behaviors. For examples, see BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits course. Tiny Habits are “baby steps” — daily behaviors that require little time or effort. Examples are flossing just 1 tooth after brushing your teeth and doing just 1 push up after you use the bathroom.

BJ’s theory is that small behaviors expand over time into bigger habits, such as flossing all your teeth and doing dozens of push ups every day. This is exactly what I’ve found, and I encourage you to test Tiny Habits for yourself.

Ironically, lots of material in the self-help space is filled with vaguely inspirational abstractions that have no real implications for your daily behavior. (As much as I enjoyed the Landmark Forum, for example, it’s filled with that stuff.)

Collect data as you do the new behavior

Keep track of how often you do your new behaviors and the results you’re getting. You have many options here. Keep it simple.

For example, you could use an activity tracker such as a Fitbit to monitor how many steps you take every day.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld used a wall calendar to track how many days in a row he wrote new jokes.

There are also plenty of pre-formatted worksheets for collecting data on your behaviors and their consequences. Start here.

Confirm or disconfirm the author’s predictions.

In essence, a self-help book is a set of predictions: If you use these suggestions, then your life will change for the better in specific ways. When you make concrete behavior changes and measure the effects, you can speak with authority about whether those predictions came true for you.

For more on testing ideas, see:

Evaluating Self-Help — Is It Based On Theory?

graph-backgroundTheory is one of the least understood words in the English language. We often hear the term used derisively — as in that idea sounds good in theory, but will it work in practice?

Actually, a theory states precise relationships between things we observe. A genuine theory allows you to accurately predict the consequences of your behavior. If a theory doesn’t work in practice, then it’s not a good theory.

In How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon explain the practical benefits of theory:

Indeed, while experiences and information can be good teachers, there are many times in life where we simply cannot afford to learn on the job. You don’t want to have to go through multiple marriages to learn how to be a good spouse. Or wait until your last child has grown to master parenthood. This is why theory can be so valuable: it can explain what will happen, even before you experience it.

A related benefit is that theory gives you a way to create your own strategies for behavior change. Take psychologist BJ Fogg’s model, for example. It states that for a behavior to occur, three elements must converge in the same moment:

  • Motivation, including the desire for pleasure over pain, hope over fear, and social acceptance over social rejection
  • Ability, meaning that simple behaviors are more likely to occur when motivation is low (which is often)
  • Trigger — a cue or call to action, such as a ringing alarm clock

I used this model to develop a daily yoga practice after decades of trying and failing. After turning on my coffee maker in the morning (a reliable daily trigger), my intention is to simply step on my yoga mat — a behavior that requires no special ability.

BJ Fogg’s model predicts that such tiny habits evolve naturally into more complex and sustained behaviors. This is exactly what happened for me: Over time, stepping on the mat led to doing several rounds of sun salutes — even on days when my motivation to do yoga is zilch.

All this is why I’m excited by BJ’s model and books such as Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life and Mind and Emotions. Because they are grounded in research-based theory (Relational Frame Theory, to be exact), these books exemplify the gold standard for self-help.

At a lower level are inspirational books based on anecdotes, such as Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and the whole Chicken Soup for the Soul series. I don’t find theories in such books. They’re not research-based, and their predictive power is questionable.

Which is why I often ask: That’s fine in practice, but does it work in theory?