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!


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 -

Source: How Government Can Restore the Faith of Citizens –

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?