Now that we’re nearing the end of January, around 40% of you has given up on the resolutions you set for yourself this year.
Funny when you think about it: no living creature has the capacity nor the interest to even think about its own behaviour relative to a random switch in the calendar; nothing really clicks in the world, except our clocks and the frenzy leading up to that click… In anticipation we compound the years’ work to be done, projects to be completed, objectives to be met, results to be booked, relations to be celebrated, and the ritualised family dinner-parties to be enjoyed over Christmas. We’re buzzing towards the climax of nothing more than a clock-tick, a cork-pop, a glass-cling, a kiss-hug, a dance-move and then… we express some high minded resolutions to stop drinking, eating, smoking, to start jogging, vegan-chewing, energy-saving… Until we gently roll back to our daily routines, our commitments fade and it all starts over again, up the calendar…
The problem with these New Years resolutions is that they lead us to depress ourselves. Not because the intentions are bad, but because we tend to be unable to live up to those expectations. We think — society thinks — it’s a matter of discipline and will-power. We blame ourselves and others for the lack of success. Failing means you’re a weakling, a loser, an outcast. Our (western) societies’ obsession with self-made succes seems to blind us towards understanding the fundamentals of human behaviour.
Our brains are wired to be functioning as efficient as possible. Deliberate thinking, problem solving, or thought construction is a taxing process which consumes a lot of energy. With evolution, our brains have grown a huge amount of ‘algorithms’ (when X happens, do Y) to automatically respond to situation patterns with the most likely action patterns. This saves a lot of energy, helps us respond much quicker to threats and usually works perfectly well in our daily lives. But oftentimes, when we should think a little more deliberate, the brain’s autopilot takes the easy shortcut as it prioritises an intuitive probability over a deliberate consideration of the correct response. According to Daniel Kahneman (2011), we are very poor statisticians (most people, including politicians, still don’t understand exponential growth of say a virus), we tend to overestimate our ability to plan ahead (planning fallacy), we see evidence that supports our beliefs (confirmation bias) and we fear loss more than we enjoy gains (loss aversion), etc.
We humans are, as Dan Ariely puts it: “Predictably Irrational” and that is exactly why we can be fooled so easily by sales people who know how to ring our Pavlovian bells to trigger the appropriate (or inappropriate) action patterns in our brains. They apply what Robert Cialdini (1993) calls ‘social jiu-jitsu’ — using our automatic mental shortcuts to comply with the persuader without thinking about it. These Fixed Action Patterns predict for example why we will reuse our hotel towels when we believe that the previous occupant did that as well. Why we feel tempted to tip the waiter when the bill comes with candy and a kind message. Why we commit to a dinner reservation when saying it out loud because our self-image wants to feel consistent. Why we stop thinking critically in the presence of experts and how we tend to book that cottage just because we believe others want to as well.
Trickier is the fact that we are currently living in the biggest behavioural study the world has even seen on a continuous basis. Even when we are not using our phones, we are monitored continuously by the Facebooks and Googles of this world — you can test this by talking about your honeymoon or buying a new refrigerator explicitly and loudly for a while.. Just see what kind of ads enter your feed within a day or so.
The most used apps on our phones are designed to form addictive habits, as is brilliantly presented by Nir Eyal (2014) and his Hook model. Addictive habits because its triggers are designed to tap into subtle and semi-conscious negative internal feelings of loneliness, boredom, incompetence or stress: moments of procrastination or a micro depression trigger us to pull out our phones and check unread messages, friends invites or new content on our timelines, not because we want to, or because we fear missing out on things, but because we want to relieve a dissonant pain and anxiety — I am not a lonely person… The most often used and simple to use apps win over those with complex features or hurdles towards the pain relief as we curiously anticipate our timelines to see other people being more happy than us, or to hunt for that cheaply priced couch or simply to feel good about ourselves by completing/deleting unread messages.
Key to the hook model is the timeline or content feed which is based on the success of the slot-machine. The reward centre in our brain fires not so much when we receive a reward, but when we anticipate it: the slow circling of the white ball rattling over the numbers in the Roulette wheel, the mechanic turning and slowly coming to a halt of the slots: our dopamine surges when the outcome is not predictable. In other words: a well designed content feed keeps users in what Casino-owners call “the zone”, we become like zombies as we keep feeding that ‘one-armed bandit’. And because most of these platforms are basically advertising and data mining bandits, keeping our eyeballs ‘hooked’ is of course their business model. The last part of the hook requires users to invest in the platform by shaping our profiles, by inviting friends, setting preferences (tapping into Cialdini’s principles of consistency, social proof, scarcity, etc.) and managing our networks so that the value of the platform grows over time and the barrier to switch to other platforms grows with every use-cycle.
Considering the above, it is surprising how dominant the notion of rationality still is today. The logic of the “economic man”, the idea that people act in their own best interest, that succes is a matter of trying harder, studying harder, working harder — the notion that luck or privilege has nothing to do with it – is a narrative that steers most business and policymaking to this day. It leads to an almost institutional inclination to blame customers or citizens when they respond with their human brains, not the rational automatons we are being taken for. Our society tends to infer that fat people, smokers, drinkers, or drug-addicts or simply poor people are in fact weak people who lack the motivation and discipline to change. What’s worse: we apply the same narrative to ourselves. We blame ourselves for lacking the willpower.
Fortunately, the same reflexes that inhibit us from changing our behaviours can be used to do just that: adopt new behaviours, if we’re smart about it. Instead of focusing on the big and impressive end-goal, we should focus on the small and immediate instead. Translate the big goal to the smallest activity you can think of and then link that to a logical routine that you apply already. Not very sexy, but magically effective. J.B. Fogg, founder of the Behaviour Design Lab at Stanford University and author of Tiny Habits (2020) provides practical pathways to change patterns. Small, to make sure you can actually complete the task and to accomplish and experience success which in turn motivates repetition to reengage in the behaviour the next time.
By anchoring the new activity to existing routines you can overcome the usual barriers of inertia and make use of established triggers for established behaviours. For example flossing just one tooth after brushing your teeth or doing two push-ups every time after you used the bathroom. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a silver bullet, so defining the tiny behaviour and selecting the appropriate routine to anchor the behaviour to is tricky as you have to account for changing contexts: doing a push-up at your home toilet is not the same as doing a push-up in the office restroom.
The appeal and healthy idea of the Tiny Habits concept is that it might help us focus and celebrate small success, which is the inevitable precursor to big success. We should take our minds away form those big and shiny, but abstract and far away end goals. We should learn to celebrate the small: shake a little dance and tell our mirror-selves: “I’m awesome”. That’s big and shiny.
I wish you tiny dances.