What happened there? One mistake we all make.

We spend much of our life seeking explanations. What caused the issue with production last Tuesday? Why is the market down today? Why was Steve Jobs so successful?

The term cognitive dissonance was first made popular by Leon Festinger in 1957. The general idea is humans make sense of the world by bringing different ideas into balance – we strive for internal consistency. We each have our own world view and when events arise that put that world view into question, our minds work quickly to reconcile the new information with the old world view. Unlike my checkbook, most human minds do not like being out of balance.

Although we humans like our mental checkbook in balance, there’s a problem –most of us hate accounting. We skip steps and perform the mental reconciliation in haste.

A recent WSJ article titled “Email Enigma: When the Boss’s Reply Seems Cryptic” provides a great example of a mental reconciliation gone bad. From the article:

“Jill Campen was baffled recently when her boss Marty Finkle fired back a one-word reply to her carefully thought-out email asking for his approval on a client-training presentation she had prepared: “Done!” Ms. Campen, a consultant at Scotwork North America in Parsippany, N.J., puzzled over the message for a half-hour, then decided she was too upset to resolve the matter by email. She called Mr. Finkle and asked, “What is going on with you? ‘Done?’ What does that mean?”

So what was the result of Ms. Campen’s mental haste? She attributed her boss’s quick response to a negative disposition rather than Mr. Finkle’s situation – he was busy and did not have time to provide a more thorough response.

The technical term that Stanford psychologist Lee Ross coined to describe this mistake is “fundamental attribution error” – the error of attributing an outcome to personal traits or disposition rather than the situation or context.

We are all guilty of the same mistake that Ms. Campen made. Take for instance our society’s obsession with our heroes – when we read a powerful autobiography, our takeaway (at least mine) tends to center on individual traits and acts rather than the context and situation that allowed the man or woman to succeed.

So back to this term – fundamental attribution error – when determining the cause of an event we can attribute some of the cause to personal traits and some of the cause to context. We consistently over allocate causes to individuals, but why? Books have written about this – a short summary is that it’s easier to attribute causes to individuals rather than context.

So why does this matter? This matters because people often receive blame or credit, when really our focus should be on process, the environment or some deeper cause of the success or failure.

Take for instance the media coverage of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. I’ve heard much analysis of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson – the police officer that shot Brown. This is a look into personal attributes. I’ve only read a couple of pieces that go deep on the situation that led to the shooting.

Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former New York City police officer, has spoken at length about the close proximity of Darren Wilson to Michael Brown just before the shooting occurred and how that was an important contributor to the escalation. Could a change in protocol or tactics help change the outcome? In a search to learn from this tragedy, the contextual and situational factors should receive the same coverage as the personal dispositions of Brown and Wilson.

Another example that is probably more familiar – what tends to happen when something goes wrong at your company? I mean really wrong – not just an inconsequential error. Is there discipline around finding the root cause? Or is a person (or group) pointed to as the main culprit?

This real issue here is this – when we make an incorrect attribution we fail to learn what is really going on. We spend our time trying to be like our heroes by trying to emulate personal traits rather than his or her situation. We attempt to compete with the industry leader by hiring key talent rather than examining the environment that allows the leader to succeed.

So what is the answer to this common mistake that we all seem to make? Step one is to recognize that we have a tendency to over attribute causes to people rather than situations. If you get this, you are well on your way to avoiding the grip of the fundamental attribution error.

Step two is to begin looking for patterns and systems. Think back to the email exchange between Ms. Campen and her boss – could there be a plausible situational factor that might lead him to respond to her email with one word – “noted”? Of course there is – perhaps he is busy. Maybe he just finished a difficult meeting with his boss. Has he ever responded in this way before? We can start to notice patterns and systems by thinking about and noticing the context.

The next time you are seeking to explain a terse email, the words from your spouse or the factors of a tragic event, don’t stop with the personal attribution. Remember that situational factors drive behavior just as much as personal traits and dispositions.


Break it down – Turn big things into small things

I’ve needed to clean, stain and seal my deck for the past several months. I know that it needs to be done – the wood is old and needs to be better protected before winter. Yet, that knowledge had no impact on my actions until yesterday.

So what changed? I became highly motivated. Based on the weather forecast, I knew that yesterday might be one of my last days of the season to work on this project.

As I got started, I kept thinking, “why didn’t I clean out my sprayer a week ago?” or “why didn’t I move a piece of furniture a day off the deck?” It became clear that this large project, which I put off until the last second, was just several small projects sequenced together.

Isn’t every project like this? We focus on the enormity of the major task – in my case, staining the deck. But in reality, there are a lot of small tasks that we can be working on to build momentum.

The beauty of small tasks is that they don’t require you to be highly motivated to complete. If I had created the small task of “get out staining materials”, I would have been able to do that in three minutes and on a day when it was raining.

Do you have a project (home or work) that you keep putting off? Take five minutes to break it down into all the smaller tasks that are required. The smaller you can make the tasks the better. Start building momentum and you will find yourself getting bigger items off of your list.

Read Real Books!

source: Slowreads.com

Over the past few months, I’ve learned more and more about behavior. What drives us to do the things we do? How do I get someone to take a certain action?

The field of behavior design is growing. Leading companies are applying science to almost every design feature. LinkedIn is a great example – they perform all manner of tricks to get the users to provide more information.

Here’s one example: you get an email that shows who has viewed your profile -> you click to see the full list -> LinkedIn shows you where you rank among your connections -> LinkedIn offers tips to have you increase your profile views -> most of these tips involve adding more information to your profile -> LinkedIn is able to make money off of this information by selling premium services to recruiting and other professionals.

Behavior happens when three things come together: motivation, ability and a prompt. LinkedIn’s email serves as the prompt. The site makes it extremely easy to add information and LinkedIn motivates you by playing to our desire to be noticed.

So what am I doing with my understanding of behavior design? I’m moving a lot of my activities offline. One change is in how I read. I’m starting to read real books! (I’m also changing more of what I read, but that’s for another post). I used to think that my kindle app was provided for huge efficiency gains. I could read on any device. I could copy/paste text to a word doc with notes. I could listen to the audio version while driving.

These are all valid points. The connectivity of smart devices allowed me to do all these things. BUT, it also allowed for distractions that would take my attention away from reading. In addition, have you ever tried to highlight a passage and make notes on an e-book? Sure – there are features that allow for this behavior, but I find it much easier to do this with a real book.

If you’re interested in getting more out of your reading, I’d recommend you check out some of Ryan Holiday’s methods. He’s written a great blog post titled THE NOTECARD SYSTEM: THE KEY FOR REMEMBERING, ORGANIZING AND USING EVERYTHING YOU READ.

You are free to choose what devices you use, but know this – Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc all employ some of the smartest people on the planet who are working tirelessly to keep you using their products. If you want less distractions, you should consider moving more of your work offline.

The benefits of transparency

This past Tuesday, I spent the day surrounded by the leading thinkers and doers in the field of behavior design at the Design For Action conference in DC.

One of the most insightful talks I heard was from Michael Norton, a professor at HBS. His talk covered Transparency and Trust – How organizations—from companies to governments— can gain the trust of their key stakeholders (from customers to constituents) to increase both buy in and buying.

I’ll recap two anecdotes that Norton shared and then add some of my take aways

Anecdote 1

Norton shared a story about a locksmith who started out his career like many of us. He wasn’t very good at performing tasks quickly. He would fiddle, cuss and sweat until he got the got the problem door open. His customers would observe his work and assume that it was hard, and then happily pay him $70 for unlocking their door.

Over time, he became a master locksmith. He could now open any lock in a matter of seconds. He was much faster. His true hourly rate had increased dramatically. Only there was a problem. His customers couldn’t see his skill and experience and therefore they felt ripped off for paying $70 for only a few minutes worth of work.

To combat this, the locksmith slowed things down. He would spend time getting out all his tools and explain what he was doing to the customer. Remarkably, his customers were happier when he took longer.

A website analogy to this is Kayak. Try running a search for flights on the site and you’ll notice that Kayak shows you flights in real-time as the search engine returns results. Norton has run tests on a site that only shows the final results. Satisfaction and purchasing improves when the work is shown. Even if it takes longer to show the results.

kayak screen shot

Anecdote 2

Norton has worked with another large organization that has a transparency problem. The government. He shared a some shocking figures that relate to transparency.

According to the figure below, high percentages of people respond “No” to the question, “have you ever used a government program”, when they are actually beneficiaries of a government program.

Take for instance the GI Bill. 40% of those surveyed that have used the GI Bill say they have never used a government program. This blows my mind.

The government is providing trillions of dollars of benefits, but those receiving the benefits do not know it.

Norton approached the problem transparency with the city of Boston by helping citizens to visualize the work the city was doing. This site has been popular and helped create transparency.

Source: How Government Can Restore the Faith of Citizens - http://hbswk.hbs.edu/

Source: How Government Can Restore the Faith of Citizens – http://hbswk.hbs.edu/

Takeaway #1

Showing is always better than telling. This statement is obvious, but we are all guilty of telling. A company tells it’s employee it values them. We tell our customers we  care about their needs. We tell others at work we are working hard. We tell someone we love them.

Transparency is about showing. Telling is easy, but showing is hard. I once set up a live video stream of my team (a group of actuaries). I can’t think of things that are more boring than watching insurance product development, but many people loved the stream. It brought a whole new level of transparency to our work. You could actually see us collaborating and working hard. What can you do to show not tell?

Takeaway #2

Visualizations can be powerful storytellers. We are working with our kids to help them see what goes into keeping our house running (99% done by my amazing wife). We’ve started with a long list that shows who performs each task. I hope the takeaway is “wow. Mom does these 84 things and I only have to do these 4 things. I am getting a great deal.” While I don’t have high hopes that this produces the desired change, the city of Boston is a encouraging example. If the city of Boston can use a simple website to improve the perception of government, perhaps our family can use transparency to change the perception of chores.

How can you use showing (not telling) for good? Are there ways you can improve transparency?

VIDEO – How I started doing 70+ pull-ups a day

Habit Definition

In the video above, I outline how I use BJ Fogg’s method for developing habits. Last year I could barely do 1 pull-up, and now I do about 70 a day.

Before I dive in deeper into habit creation, let’s talk about what a habit is. Nir Eyal tells us that “a habit is when not doing something causes a bit of pain.” When I first read this sentence, I had to re-read it a couple of times to make sure I understood. Let’s try some examples.

Example 1: You are at the dinner table, you get a text message. You try to keep electronics away from the dinner table. You resist the urge to check the message. What do you feel? Probably a small bit of pain. Your brain is wondering “what does it say?”

Example 2: You are in a long line at the grocery store. You reach for your phone, only to realize you left your phone in the car. What do you feel? A small bit of pain.

Examples 1 and 2 are habits that I have. Not doing them causes me a bit of pain. You have to view your habits in this light. I might tell people that I have a flossing habit, but do I feel pain when I skip a night? Absolutely not. Therefore I do not have a flossing habit.

Habit Creation

So how did I create my pull-up habit. I followed Fogg’s tiny habits method. I discussed this in the previous post, but this is how I went about it for pull-ups.

1. Think of target behavior – for me it was doing more pull-ups. I’ve always been told that pull-ups are a great form of exercise. Plus, I felt that being able to do 5-10 pull-ups is a good indicator of overall fitness. For you it could be doing squats, drinking more water, using your iPhone less, etc. Remember, it’s much easier to do more of something (pull-ups) than less of something (using my iPhone)

2. Select a trigger event to target the behavior – Since a habit requires no thought, something has to cause the behavior. This is the trigger. To find a good trigger, make sure it’s easy to do the behavior you select in #1 after the trigger. For example, if your habit is to take a sip of water after you send an email, you need to make sure that you have water on your desk. If you have to walk 5 minutes away to a water fountain, you’re not likely to perform the behavior.

It also helps if the trigger even happens several times a day. The formula is AFTER (trigger event) PERFORM (simple behavior). So the more times your trigger event happens, the more frequently you are performing the behavior.

For my pull-up habit – At the time, there was a small gym right beside the bathroom closest to my office. So I decided to make going to the bathroom my trigger event (to be more specific, washing my hands was the trigger).

3. Pick a tiny behavior – I could have said that AFTER (I go to the bathroom) PERFORM (10 pull-ups), but this would be too hard. Habit’s always start small. For me, I could do 3 pull ups without too much effort, so I decided to start there. If you want to develop a habit of working out every morning, start by just putting on your clothes every day for a week. If you want to develop a flossing habit, start with one tooth. The secret to BJ’s method is that the behavior has to be small.

4. Create a reward – all habits provide some sort of reward. Think about how you feel when you pull out your phone to check Instagram – there’s a tiny emotional reward you experience. Again, the reward starts small and grows over time. BJ recommends a fist pump or affirming that you did this right. I go for the fist pump – that used to be the reward. Now the reward for me is a bit deeper. I feel better when I actually go a do my pull-ups. I still do the fist pump – out of habit! I was out of town this past weekend at a retreat center and I thought about pull-ups every time I went to the bathroom. I went search all over the retreat center for a decent pull-up bar. I finally found a cross beam that I could do a few pull ups on.

Definition. Check. Method Check. Create Habits – Go

Do you have some habits that you want to create? Do you want to learn more about these methods? I’d highly recommend going through BJ’s Tiny Habits course. I’d also love to hear about the habits you are trying to create and answer any questions you might have.

Now it’s time for me to do some pull-ups.

4 Tips for Creating Habits

Have you ever been jealous of highly productive people? I know I have. You think, “how does she get so much done?”

I’ve come to the conclusion that highly productive and effective individuals have better habits than the rest of us. They have many more good habits then bad habits. This got me thinking, “how do I create good habits?”

It turns out that creating habits is not all that difficult. If you want to go through a course and learn what I’ve learned, you should check out BJ Fogg’s tiny habits course. It’s well worth your time.

If you are interested in creating new habits, it’s important to keep some things in mind:

  1. It needs to be easy to do. For me, I’m not attempting to write 1,000 words a day, just 100. If you want to develop a habit of practicing the guitar daily, start with just 3 minutes of practice, not 30.
  2. It needs to be something you enjoy. It’s almost impossible to create a habit doing something that you hate doing. For example, it is going to be very difficult for me to create a habit of waking up at 5am.
  3. Find a trigger that will signal to you it’s time to perform the activity. Good triggers are things like, “after I open my laptop in the morning, I will…” or “after I use the restroom, I will…” or “after I finish breakfast, I will…” After a few days, you will get in the routine and recognize that after you perform (insert trigger) you need to (insert activity)
  4. Celebrate accomplishing your task. It can be as simple as a small fist pump, or saying “I’m awesome!” We know that habits are driven off of triggers and rewards. A fist pump or the pleasure you get from seeing a chain of “X”s on a calendar are good rewards.

So get started building some healthy habits – and share any habits you have made. In my next post, I’ll show how I used this to develop a habit of doing pull-ups. I’m now doing about 60 pull-ups a day – it works!

Knowing your customers’ stories

I recently watched the short video above from Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Twitter and Square. It reminded me of a powerful point.

Your customers always think about benefit from their perspective.

On the other hand, I tend to think about the benefits of my products or service from my perspective.

This is one reason entrepreneurs are sometimes disappointed that their new product doesn’t take off like they would have hoped. They have failed to fully and deeply understand how the product fits into the life of the end user.

So how do you get that perspective? You need to spend a lot of time talking with your customers. You need to understand their hopes and fears. What causes them pleasure? What causes them pain? After you go deep, you can begin to constructive a customer narrative and write the story from their perspective.

Where and how does your product fit in? What problem does it solve?

This approach leads you to the true benefit of your product – solving a need that the customer really has. Take the time to explore the lives of your customers. They will show their appreciation by buying what you are selling.