How do you make large scary ideas seem small and not so scary, or the reverse — make small things seem more important? You use the behavioral economics idea of “partitioning”. It’s all explained in this episode of the Human Tech podcast.
I read an article in the New York Times today about “niksen” which is a Dutch word meaning doing nothing. The article talks about how doing nothing can be good for you.
Ironically the article touts the idea of doing nothing so that you can be more productive. Which to me would mean you are doing nothing so that you can be better at doing something else. This does fit with the science of how the brain works, and how creativity works. (I’ve made an entire online video course on the topic). When you give your Executive Attention Network a break by not thinking or focusing on anything in particular, that frees up your Imagination Network (I know, I know, but this is actually the name given to this brain network by scientists) to work on solving problems and coming up with new ideas based on what you were concentrating on before. So it is true that if you take a break and stare into space for a while that will help you come up with ideas and problem solutions.
But doing nothing so you can then be better at doing something seems to run counter to the idea of niksen. What about doing nothing so that you just do nothing?
I’ve been teaching an 8-week Mindfulness Meditation course once or twice a year at my local yoga studio (a wonderful place called 5 Koshas in Wausau Wisconsin). The 8 week class includes homework, such as practicing the meditation we learned in class that week every day at home and so on. It’s a pretty intensive class.
The last time I taught it I added to the homework. I asked students to practice 5 minutes a day of niksen. I asked them to sit in nature or stare out their window, or sit in their comfy chair at home and look at the fire in the fireplace, or just stare into space. This was the one thing I got push back on. They were willing to practice meditation for 20 minutes every day, but to sit and do nothing for 5 minutes? “I don’t have time to do that” was the typical answer. “I have responsibilities, children, work…”.
I’m not disputing that they are busy people. I get it. I remember when I had two young children at home. But the vehemence with which they fought this idea seemed out of proportion with what I was asking them to do.
I think the real reason for the resistence is that many of us have created a “busy habit”. We’re addicted to doing stuff. We have to prove something to ourselves and the world. I’m not sure what that something is, but it involves striving, being productive, being busy, working hard, playing hard. Everything has to have a purpose and be connected with a goal. Even our leisure time has to be busy, busy, busy. Even our “down” time has to be filled with all the ways we are making ourselves better. We need to be learning to play piano, getting more exercise, learning how to make wine and so on.
I’m glad that the New York Times wrote about niksen. I hope this idea becomes more mainstream. I’ve always loved doing nothing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as ambitious as the next person. I write books and run a business. I compose music and grow an extensive garden. I teach meditation classes and organize my photos. But I also love to sit in one place and just look around me and do nothing at all. Maybe now my seeming “laziness” will become smart and trendy.
If you haven’t tried out niksen lately I highly recommend you do so. It’s easy. Sit down somewhere and don’t do anything. Don’t bring your phone, or a book, or someone to talk to, or a podcast to listen to. Don’t try and take a nap. Just sit and stare or look around you lazily. You might like it.
Have you ever heard that it takes 60 days to form or change a habit? Well, that’s actually not true. I used to write about that being true, but new research and a mindshift change for me made me realize that habits can be very easy to create or change, IF you understand the science behind habit formation and use that science when you are trying to change or create a habit.
Whether you realize it or not, a lot of your daily behavior is composed of habits. These are automatic behaviors that you do without thinking. You do them the same way every day.
Think about all the habits you have that you don’t even remember trying to create. Perhaps you put your keys in the same pocket when you walk out the door, or maybe you have a routine that you go through every weekday when you first wake up.
You probably have routines around hundreds of things:
And so on.
How did you end up with so many habits if they are so hard to create? If you understand the science around how habits are formed, you will see that there are some fairly simple things that you can do that make habits very easy to form and even relatively easy to change.
For most people, most of the time, habits are created unconsciously and they are carried out automatically. Habits help us all to do the many hundreds of things we need and want to do in our lives. Because we can carry out a habit without having to think about it, it frees up our thought processes to work on other things. It’s an efficient trick that our brains have evolved to make us more efficient.
It all started with saliva – Let’s take a look at the science behind forming habits. If you took a Psychology course you probably have heard the name Ivan Pavlov. Ivan Pavlov won a Nobel prize in 1904 for his work in medicine. He researched the digestive system, working primarily with dogs. But while he was doing research on digestion he discovered something that surprised him.
Pavlov was measuring the amount of saliva that dogs produce as part of digestion. He noticed first that dogs would salivate when they saw food, even before they tasted it. Then he noticed that if another event, such as a bell, or the footsteps of the experimenter was paired with the food, the dog would eventually start salivating at just the sound of the bell or the sound of the footsteps. This is called classical conditioning.
It goes like this:
First you pair two things together, a stimulus (food) and a response (salivating):
Stimulus (FOOD) results in Response (SALIVATING)
Then you add an additional stimulus:
Stimulus 1 (FOOD) + Stimulus 2 (BELL) results in Response (SALIVATING)
Over time you will be able to remove the original stimulus, and have just the additional stimulus elicit the response:
Stimulus 2 (BELL) results in Response (SALIVATING)
By now you are probably wondering what this has to do with you. You are probably not trying to create a salivation habit! Classical conditioning is the starting point for understanding automatic behavior and habits.
For example, let’s take a look at smoking. We start with:
Stimulus 1 (SEEING CIGARETTE) results in Response (LIGHT UP AND SMOKE THE CIGARETTE)
Then we add:
Stimulus 1 (SEEING CIGARETTE) + Stimulus 2 (FEELING BORED) results in Response (LIGHT UP AND SMOKE THE CIGARETTE)
Until we get:
Stimulus 2 (FEELING BORED) results in Response (LIGHT UP AND SMOKE THE CIGARETTE)
Keeping this original research in mind, let’s explore what we now know about creating or changing habits.
1. Small, specific actions are more likely to become habitual – Let’s say you decide to create an exercise habit, and you tell yourself “From now on I’m going to get more exercise.” This is unlikely to turn into a habit because it’s too general/vague, and it’s too big.
What about “I’m going to exercise three times a week.” That’s a little better, but still not specific enough. “I’m going to go for a walk every day after work” is better because it is more specific. Or even, “When I get home from work the first thing I’m going to do is change into my walking clothes/shoes and take a 30 minute walk.”
2. Making the action easy to do increases the likelihood that it becomes a habit – Once you have identified the specific small action then you want to make that action easy to take. In the exercise/walking example, you will be more likely to engage in the habit if you make it easy. For example, put out your shoes/clothes right near the door so when you get home you see them.
3, Actions that involve physical movement are easier to “condition” into a habit – With the walking/exercise example, that’s easy. You are going to reach out your arm and grab your workout clothes.
If you are trying to create a habit that is not very physical, for example, a habit where at the beginning of the work day you pause and decide on what are the most important things for you to do that day, then you will want to create a physical action to take, for example, have a special whiteboard near you and a special pen you use to do this task
4, Habits that have auditory and/or visual cues associated with them will be easier to create and maintain – One reason that using your mobile phone is so habitual is it lights up when you have a message, and makes buzzing or chirping noises when there is a text. These auditory and visual cues grab our attention, and increase the likelihood that we will develop a conditioned response.
The Best Way to Change an Existing Habit – The best way to change an existing habit is to create new one to replace it.
Let’s say you have a habit of coming home at the end of a work day, grabbing a soda, turning on the TV and sitting on the couch. You’d like to stop doing that because before you know it an hour has gone by and you haven’t started dinner or gotten any exercise.
How do you change that habit? You have to go back to the very beginning of the stimulus/response cycle and replace the current response with a different response.
This is what is happening with the existing stimulus/response:
Stimulus (WALK IN DOOR) results in Response (GRAB SODA, TURN ON TV, SIT ON COUCH)
To change this, decide what you want to replace it with, for example, let’s say you want to go for a walk as soon as you get home. The best thing to do is to position your walking shoes and perhaps a change of clothing right by the door you walk into.Then for a few days purposefully and consciously grab the shoes and clothes and put them on as soon as you walk in the door, and go for a walk.
Within 7 days you will have conditioned the walk in door to a different response:
Stimulus (WALK IN DOOR) results in Response (Grab shoes and clothes, change, and go for walk)
Give it a try. Pick either a new habit you want to create, or an existing habit you want to change. Next, figure out the stimulus and the response. Make sure the action is small, easy, attached to something physical, and, if possible use a visual or auditory cue. Do the new habit for a week, and see what happens. You may be surprised at how easy it is to create or change habits.
For more information:
The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg
or check out BJ Fogg’s site: https://www.tinyhabits.com/
Research shows that people tend to make big life decisions at the first of the year, which gives us New Year Resolutions. This is the right time for changes both large and small. (FYI, If you are in a “9” year i.e., 19, 29, 39 and so on, research shows you are even more likely to make a big life decision.)
Instead of following some of the usual folksy advice about how to make and keep New Year’s resolutions, you could, instead, use brain and behavioral science to craft New Year’s resolutions that will actually work.
Here are some ideas of how to do that, and the science behind them.
1, Pick small, concrete actions. “Get more exercise” is not small. “Eat healthier” is not small. This is one reason New Year’s resolutions don’t work.
A lot of New Year’s resolutions are about habits — eating healthier, exercising more, drinking less, quitting smoking, texting less, spending more time “unplugged” or any number of other “automatic” behaviors. Habits are automatic, “conditioned” responses. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not hard to change habits IF you do so based on science.
If it’s a habit and you want a new one it MUST be something really small and specific. For example, instead of “Get more exercise” choose “Walk for at least 20 minutes at least 4 times a week” or “Have a smoothie every morning with kale or spinach in it”
2. Use visual and/or auditory cues. Want to go for that walk everyday? Set up a place in your home where your walking shoes are. Don’t put them away in a closet. Put them in a place where you will see them when you get home from work or first thing in the morning. The shoes will act as a visual cue. And/or set an alarm on your phone called “Go for a walk” and have the alarm go off every morning at 7:30 am. People become conditioned to auditory and visual cues and that makes it easier for an action to become a habit.
3. Decide what you want, not what you DON’T want. Instead of setting a resolution of “I’m not going to check my email 10 times a day,” set it for what you ARE going to do: “I’m going to use “batching and check my email only twice a day.” Instead of “I’m going to drink less soda”, set the resolution as “I’m going to replace drinking a soda with drinking water.” Although this may seem not that different, it’s important. It’s easier for your brain networks to work on an intention stated in the “affirmative” than it is stated in the “negative”.
4. Write a new self-story. The best (and some would say the only) way to get large and long-term behavior change, is by changing your self-story.
Everyone has stories about themselves that drive their behavior. You have an idea of who you are and what’s important to you. Essentially you have a “story” operating about yourself at all times. These self-stories have a powerful influence on decisions and actions.
Whether you realize it or not, you make decisions based on staying true to your self-stories. Most of this decision-making based on self-stories happens unconsciously. You strive to be consistent. You want to make decisions that match your idea of who you are. When you make a decision or act in a way that fits your self-story, the decision or action will feel right. When you make a decision or act in a way that doesn’t fit your self-story you feel uncomfortable.
If you want to change your behavior and make the change stick, then you need to first change the underlying self-story that is operating. Do you want to be more optimistic? Then you’d better have an operating self-story that says you are an optimistic person. Want to join your local community band? Then you’ll need a self-story where you are outgoing and musical.
In his book, Redirect, Timothy Wilson describes a large body of impressive research of how stories can change behavior long-term. One technique he has researched is “story-editing”:
Write out your existing story. Pay special attention to anything about the story that goes AGAINST the new resolution you want to adopt. So if your goal is to learn how to unplug and be less stressed, then write out a story that is realistic, that shows that it’s hard for you to de-stress, for example, that you tend to get overly involved in dramas at home or at work.
Now re-write the story — create a new self-story. Tell the story of the new way of being. Tell the story of the person who appreciates life, and takes time to take care of him/her-self.
The technique of story-editing is so simple that it doesn’t seem possible that it can result in such deep and profound change. But the research shows that one re-written self-story can make all the difference.
Give it a try. What have you got to lose? This year use science to create and stick to your New Year’s resolutions.
What do you think? What has worked for you in keeping your resolutions?
For more info:
Timothy Wilson’s book Redirect:
Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit:
My book, How To Get People To Do Stuff
B.J. Fogg’s website: tinyhabits.com
The Team W is compiling a list of some of the best User Experience, Human/Tech, Design, and Behavioral Science conferences coming up in 2019. If you have a favorite conference (or if you put on a conference) that you would like to be considered for the list please send:
What makes the conference special/the best/a not-to-miss event
Website if available, otherwise a contact person
Send to email@example.com
We’ll compile the list and post it.
I hope you’ve heard of System 1 and System 2 thinking. It’s an idea originally put together by Daniel Kahneman. System 1 is our normal state of brain activity. Watching TV, driving, looking at a picture of a sad face. It’s simple, effortless, and our favorite mode to be in. System 2 is heavy thinking, such as solving a tough math problem, or taking the bar exam to be a lawyer (which this author did and passed, so there). It’s hard, uncomfortable, and actually uses up more calories. It’s literally more work.
The idea that there are two different processing systems in the brain is not new. And it’s probably a much better analogy of how the brain works rather than the traditional “the brain is a computer” metaphor that isn’t accurate.
Much like System 1 and System 2, in 1992 Kirkpatrick and Epstein proposed another way of thinking about these networks in their paper “Cognitive-experiential self-theory and subjective probability: Further evidence for two conceptual systems.”
They propose the idea that there are two modes of processing info, one with an experiential conceptual system, and one with a rational conceptual system. Let me try and simplify this.
The first mode is an experiential conceptual system. Note, this is not experimental, it’s experiential which means observed or perceived. Our experiential system encodes information as “concrete representations” (thanks BEGUIDE 2016). Take this mind journey with me:
Think of a door alone in a long hallway. A single closed door in an empty space.
Through the magic of the brain, you have conjured up an image of a door. You can see its color, how it opens. The space around it. It’s a physical object.
In your mind journey keep thinking about the door, but walk closer. Get so close to the door you can almost smell it. Lean up close to it right before you touch it, and blow softly on it.
I’ll bet your brain made a solid door. Your breath didn’t go through. It’s a real object in your mind.
In the cognitive-experiential self-theory you’ve used your experiential conceptual system to create something observable; it’s an object.
Now instead let’s put you in front of a tricky math problem you have to solve by hand. Say (47*16)/19.
I want you to visualize the answer. What is it? Well. Unless you’re an autistic savant can’t visualize the answer right away. You can’t “see” the answer in the same way you can see the door because you’re using a different system. You have to use the rational conceptual system. You have to remember math and the strategies to multiply and do long division. It’s a different system. It feels different.
Kirkpatrick and Epstein wanted to see if any weird human brain stuff went on when humans had to switch between the two systems. So here’s the experiment they set up (for you purists, I’m skipping to Experiment 3 in their study):
There were two bowls with red and white jelly beans. One was the Big Bowl that had 100 jelly beans, and one was the Small Bowl with only 10 jelly beans.
They set up a game where if you randomly pick a jelly bean and it’s red, you win some money (like $4); but if it’s white you win nothing.
They then put their subjects into one of four conditions. Condition 1 had (and told subjects) there was a 10% win rate. So that means 10 red jelly beans and 90 white jelly beans in the Big Bowl, and 1 red jelly bean and 9 white jelly beans in the Small Bowl.
The odds are the same; either 10/90 or 1/9.
Condition 2 had (and told subjects) there was a 90% win rate. With 9/1 jelly beans in the Small Bowl, and again 90/10 jelly beans in the Big Bowl.
Again, the odds are the same; either 90/10 or 9/1.
Conditions 3 and 4 were the same as Conditions 1 and 2, except the odds were framed as losing. Condition 3 had a 10% lose rate (so the odds and bowls were the same as Condition 2, 9/1 and 90/10), and Condition 4 had a 90% lose rate (so the odds and bowls were the same as Condition 1, 1/9 and 10/90).
Subjects were then put in front of the Big Bowl and Small Bowl and could decide which bowls they wanted to bet on. Here’s the important thing to remember; THE ODDS IN THE BOWLS ARE EXACTLY THE SAME. In every condition the odds for the Big Bowl and Small Bowl are Identical. It’s just that the big bowl has 10x the number of Jelly Beans.
Statistically it makes NO DIFFERENCE which bowl you bet on. If you gave this problem to a computer (and perhaps this is a great question for my Turing Test, to see if you’re AI or a human), it would bet randomly, or 50/50 on the Big or Small bowls. The odds are the same. You make no more or less money betting on one over the other.
So that’s what people did right? Of course not!
When presented with low odds of winning (the 10% win, or 90% lose conditions), about 75% of people chose to bet in the Big Bowl (73.1% for 90% lose and 76.9% for 10% win).
Conversely when presented with high odds of winning (the 90% win, or 10% lose conditions), only about 30% chose to bet in the Big Bowl (30.8% for the 10% lose condition, and 36.5% for the 90% win condition).
When presented with low odds of winning, most people wanted to gamble on a Big Bowl with lots of jelly beans, but when presented with high odds of winning, most people wanted to gamble on a Small Bowl with very few jelly beans.
This provides very strong support for the theory that there are two different systems. Rationally we know the odds are the same, but then our experiential system kicks in. I quote from the BEGUIDE 2016: “our experiential system – unlike the rational system – encodes information as concrete representations, and absolute numbers are more concrete than ratios or percentages.”
When we’re faced with a simply ratio-based math problem we use our rational system. But when we are standing in front of bowls with jelly beans it’s not 90%; it’s 9 out of 10. That kicks us into experiential.
9 out of 10 is almost a sure win; it’s really concrete. Our brains tell us that we want the small bowl because there are “fewer” chances to lose because there are fewer jelly beans. There’s only one loser jelly bean! We only have to avoid one bad bean, but in the Big Bowl we have to avoid 10! Your brain says, “oh, 1 is smaller than 10, that feels better, bet on that”. And this happens even while the rational system tells you they’re the same.
We walk around in non-rational, experiential mode, so people bet the small bowl.
Conversely, when it is only a 1 out of 10 chance of winning, oh man, there’s only one winner jelly bean in the whole Small Bowl. I’d rather have 10 chances of winning, and the big bowl has 10 winner jelly beans, so 10 is more than 1, so let’s bet in the Big Bowl.
Even while the rational system says they’re the same.
People go with their feelings.
Takeaways then. Welp. It’s another nail in the coffin of human rational decision making. If you want people to feel better about making a choice that has small odds of success, they’ll feel better if there are lots of possible winners, even if there are also proportionally just as many chances to lose.
Conversely, if you want people to feel better about making a choice that has high odds of success, minimize the number of losing tickets, even if that means reducing the number of winning tickets. People feel much better when they see numerically only one losing ticket.
Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Epstein, S. (1992). Cognitive-experiential self-theory and subjective probability: Further evidence for two conceptual systems. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(4), 534-544. doi:10.1037//0022-35220.127.116.114
Whether you work at a job or work at a hobby or work at an avocation, if you are like me you want to be productive. You want to get more done, with less effort, and enjoy it as much as possible.
Maybe not everyone cares about this as much as I do. For me, one of the joys in life is feeling like I have accomplished something worthwhile and useful. And if I can feel energized before, during, and after so much the better.
There’s no dearth of advice about how to be more productive, but recently I set out to find out what I could about the science of productivity. I ended up creating an online video course based on what I learned. Here’s a summary of the science of productivity. See how many of these you currently use:
So there’s seven ideas on productivity that are backed up by science. What do you think?
If you want to learn more, check out the online video course: The Science of Productivity.