Bending time to advantage

Sometimes we underestimate our adaptability.

We think we’re locked into our habits and it takes a Herculean effort to change our behaviour.

And to a degree that’s true. Habits can be difficult to break and buggers to make (which is why I wrote a book called The How of Habits).

But many of us are going to be changing our habits without much effort at all this weekend.

Many of us are going to get up an hour earlier for no reason at all except the clocks have changed.

Welcome to Daylight Savings!

Daylight Savings is a master class in behaviour change en masse. In the early hours on Sunday morning we miraculously ‘lose’ and hour, resetting our watches one hour forward.

We do it because everyone else is (it’s the norm) and the path of least resistance is to conform.

And life goes on. Sure, we might feel a little weary for a day or two but then we recalibrate and adapt to eating, going to bed and getting up earlier.

The lesson from such a change is that time really is a construct and if we wanted, we could decide to get up an hour earlier at any time of the year.

So your opportunity is this.  This weekend change how you want time to work for you.  If you have promised to make a change in your life – more time with loved ones, exercising, reading, relaxing, or cooking, then use this disruption to your advantage and make it happen.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

Originally published 28 September 2015.

Pushing past the lull

I always find myself amused when I walk past this driveway. I call it the driveway to nowhere, because standing right in front of that shiny new slab of concrete is an old tree trunk.

Driveway to nowhere

Could there by a more apt metaphor for how business or personal projects usually go? We get excited, spend money preparing ourselves for the journey ahead, maybe even tell people how great it’s going to be, then hit a roadblock.

Surviving the bit after the start

Whether you are running a project for work or trying to change personal habits, the challenge is to survive the bit after the start. In Stanford University professor BJ Fogg’s language, we need to prepare to ride the motivation wave, with the high invariably being followed by a low.

Tips for projects and project teams

1.     Do the hard stuff first

At the commencement of a project, when the team is most keen to impress each other and make a mark, that’s the time to do the heavy lifting. Run longer form workshops if you need them, assign work to individuals and team, and require they report back to the group. Get the tasks people don’t like doing (often setting up the systems and processes) out of the way, being careful to balance it with some activities where people can start to share their vision for the project.

2.  Short and shallow lulls

Once the honeymoon period is over, the team may start getting distracted by other shiny objects and greener grass. Suddenly people don’t attend meetings or submit what they promised. Time to get some fun back into the group to reenergise the project. Bring them back to what they personally want to achieve and say lull-a-bye!

3. Create your good news/bad news cadence

Short term bias means people will be more interested in the immediate timeframe. Not only that, they’ll be motivated by good news in the short term and want to defer the pain of bad news till later. 

  • Work with this natural rhythm by prioritising frequent, short and intermittent rewards over bigger, more distant payoffs. For example, organise free coffees for everyone, a guest speaker to share ideas, or simply write a nice note to team members rather than just plan a celebration when the project wraps in 12 months time.
  • On the flipside, batch bad news so they are not constantly reminded of it. Losses hurt more than gains feel good, and we get over bad news faster if we experience more of it once rather than smaller amounts more often.

4. Never ever ignore the work people have put in

The fastest way to deflate an individual or team is to ignore their efforts. As researchers have discovered, it’s as damaging to motivation as destroying their work in front of their eyes. As busy as you might be, always acknowledge their contribution, even if it cannot be used. In this case explain why and give them an opportunity to share what they learned with the group so they don’t feel it was wasted effort.

Tips for habit change

1. Do the hard stuff first

As with running a project, capitalise on your peak motivation at the start by doing the hard stuff. Set up your environment to support your new behaviour, so that might mean distancing yourself from people who don’t share your goals and/or clearing out a spare room so you can do your planned yoga without having to find and pay for a class.

2. Anticipate roadblocks

Known as ‘implementation intentions’, anticipate you will encounter roadblocks and plan how you will respond when they happen. It’s as simple as jotting down some “If/then” statements, like “If I am invited out with friends then I will drink sparkling mineral water and tell them I am on a health kick”, or “If I am travelling for work, then I will order my vegan dinner from a meal delivery service”.

3. Focus on process not progress

We can quickly get demotivated if our progress isn’t what we hoped – you see this all the time with people on a diet who chuck it in as soon as the scale doesn’t represent their efforts. Instead, focus on the process that will ultimately get you to your desired outcome. If weight loss is your thing, focus on eating a good dinner and moving everyday rather than measuring how your body changes on the scale. Measure the consistency of your effort rather than the outcome.

Dealing with the most difficult person of all

Dealing with difficult people is hard enough, but what if the most difficult person to deal with is you?

If ever you’ve failed to realise your full potential, follow through on goals that were once important, or break bad habit, then it’s time to rethink your approach.

You’ve been doing it wrong

There are three common mistakes we make when trying to change our own behaviour.  The first is relying on willpower and motivation. Willpower depletes too easily, and motivation is unstable. Instead you are better to focus on making your preferred behaviour easy to do.

The second is assuming you are in charge. You kind of are, but not really. We flip between two types of thinking throughout the course of the day; System 1 which is fast, intuitive, emotional thinking, and System 2, our slow, rational, fact-based thinking. System 2 thinks it’s in charge, but System 1 actually makes most of the decisions. That means you might know what to do and why you should, but find yourself doing something else instead. I know I should eat healthily but I reach for the chocolate, for example. We therefore need to stop planning for System 2 and focus on System 1 instead.

The third is the hot-cold empathy gap, where we mistakenly believe how we feel right now will be how we feel in the moment of truth.

Tips for wrangling your own behaviour

Cold state preparation

When you are in your ‘cold’, or unaroused, state lay the groundwork for the hot state to come. Three top tips include:

  • Make implementation intentions: Implementation intentions help you to pre-empt the hot state by noting what may arise and what you will do if it does. Simply write “if/then” statements so you have a pre-defined path to follow e.g. If my friends invite me to drinks I will take my favourite sparkling water to drink instead;
  • Structure your environment: Make good behaviours easy to do and bad behaviours more difficult. For example, if you know the mornings are rushed and you may not feel like exercising, put your exercise clothes on the floor next to your bed to eliminate the pain of having to choose what to wear. If you snack on food that isn’t good for you, don’t have it in the house, and if you do, store it out of sight and in a difficult to access spot.
  • Identify your triggers: Triggers are what reminds you to do something. If you want to stop a behaviour, remove the trigger (e.g. turn off phone alerts) or, it that’s not possible, remove yourself from the trigger (e.g. not going to the café that serves those yummy biscuits). If you want to start a new behaviour, make sure you have a trigger in place otherwise you are likely to forget (e.g. brushing teeth is a trigger to floss)

Hot state reaction

In the moment of truth, adrenaline floods your system and blood pumps to your muscles, making you feel warmer and more energised. Unfortunately, the blood flows away from your brain leaving you exposed to more impulsive decision-making. Indeed a 2006 study by Ariely and Loewenstein (PDF) found college students were more likely to engage in risky sexual activity when in a hot rather than cold state.

Aside from your cold-state preparation, two tips for managing your hot state include:

  • Recall your identity: Research by Patrick and Hagtvedt (2012) found reciting “I don’t…(do something)” rather than “I can’t…” eliminates overwhelm. This “empowered refusal” makes your decision much more clear-cut. Since becoming vegan, for instance, I have found it much easier to refuse ice cream because I just don’t eat dairy.
  • Answer for a friend: Creating psychological distance between you and the issue confronting you can help you do the right thing. Pretend you are making the decision for someone you care about because this will take you out of yourself and see the situation with a fresh, more objective perspective.

Learning to manage our own behaviour is the cornerstone of a productive and healthy life. You are the most difficult person you will ever need to influence, so the more you can learn about your behavioural patterns, the greater the odds you’ll have success shaping those same patterns in others.

How to make behavioural economics a habit

If you know about behavioural economics, want to integrate it in your work but find yourself reverting to the old ways of doing things, awaiting the perfect project to apply it to, then it’s time to rethink your approach. Procrastinating means you are missing opportunities each and every day to become a more effective influencer. Here’s a two-step approach to make behavioural techniques a habit.

Step 1. Overcoming your own resistance

Adopting a new approach to how you do things, like intentionally applying behavioural economics (BE), is an exercise in behaviour change.

That means we can anticipate three potential barriers that stand between you applying BE and not applying BE:

  • Apathy – you can’t be bothered
  • Paralysis – you are confused
  • Anxiety – you are scared of getting it wrong

Overcoming Apathy

Embedding new knowledge and skills like BE is a brain-intensive exercise, requiring deliberate, System 2 thinking to displace System 1, habituated pathways.  In other words, you have to slow yourself down and interrupt your usual approach to writing emails, thinking about your customer, designing a presentation, interacting with colleagues and so forth. 

I know because despite being an expert in the field, I still have to pause and deliberately apply BE to how I interact. The habits governing how we write and speak are so entrenched it takes effort to do it differently.

The good news is that by slowing down up front, you get a better return on your efforts. For example:

  • Reformatting the way you invoice will take some time up front, but improve your rates of on-time payment from there on.
  • Rethinking the approach you take with a stakeholder may feel more effortful, but will mean a more successful (and less stressful) meeting.
  • Redrafting pro forma letters to customers will reduce the number of in-bound complaints you receive.

Overcoming Paralysis

With so much to know about behavioural economics, it can feel overwhelming. Where to start? What principles should you use in the email you are about to write?

When I am training people in how to adopt BE, I recommend narrowing choices by focussing on three things:

  1. Clarifying your behavioural objective – Who are you trying to influence? In what context? What are they currently doing? What would you like them to do?
  2. Anticipating why you may get resistance – Is Apathy, Paralysis and/or Anxiety most likely to be a barrier?
  3. Use one of two key BE principles per barrier – For Apathy, ensure there’s a benefit for Now Me (Short-term Bias); for Paralysis, signal the most popular choice (Norms), and for Anxiety, give them nothing to fear if they do take action and something to fear if they don’t (Loss Aversion).

Overcoming Anxiety

Being nervous about applying BE is entirely understandable; it’s like any new skill. Remember when you were learning to ride a bike? You were probably taken somewhere safe, away from traffic where falling wouldn’t hurt too much. You may have even had training wheels to keep you on track. Even if it felt like you’d never get the hang of it or you fell off, you persevered because not riding a bike was worse than these short-term tribulations.

In short, you had nothing to fear if you did try riding a bike but something to fear if you didn’t. So it is with applying BE.

  1. Give yourself nothing to fear – The key benefit my clients receive through BE coaching is less an understanding BE principles, and more about building confidence. Start with small scale, low risk applications. Try sending colleagues a BE optimised email, or rework a webpage that can be monitored for impact. Make sure your manager and/or peers are on-board so you feel comfortable trying something new.
  2. Give yourself something to fear – If you are serious about embedding BE in your daily work, put something on the line. As a start, list the downside of doing what you’ve always done and missing the upside of BE, and commit to sharing your results with the leadership team.

Step 2.  Creating a habit loop

Habits are created when behaviour is repeated and reinforced on a consistent basis. Using the habit loop model devised by MIT researchers (and popularised in The Power of Habit), we can break the anatomy of a habit down further as:

  • Trigger – what and when you are reminded to apply BE
  • Routine – what you actually do to apply BE
  • Reward – why you bother

In my experience, the biggest culprit in the failure to apply BE is an absence of a trigger. If you are not reminded to think and act differently when faced with a task, you simply won’t bother.

The secret to developing a BE habit therefore relies on identifying and/or creating triggers. Here are some to get you started.

Apply behavioural economics when:

  • Writing an email to colleagues
  • Creating a new website
  • Conceptualising or drafting a marketing campaign
  • Sending an EDM to customers
  • Writing a letter to customers
  • Preparing an invoice
  • Developing a letter of engagement
  • Responding to a pitch and proposal opportunity
  • Making a sales call
  • Considering market research
  • Preparing for an important stakeholder meeting
  • Participating in a strategy session
  • Navigating budget constraints

There are also some emotional triggers, for instance:

  • You’re not 100% certain all the bases have been covered
  • You’re frustrated that you are not getting the answers you need
  • You are sick of the same old, same old
  • You’ve noticed colleagues are all talk, no action
  • You’ve just lost a big account and are looking for answers
  • There’s a sense of dread or panic in the business
  • Your industry is changing and you feel out of control

Behavioural economics is an amazing opportunity to get better outcomes from every single interaction you have with other people. Don’t you think it’s time to get on your bike?

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

A Wi-Fi password changed his life

Mauricio Estrella was staring at the prompt on his computer that requested he change his password. Recently divorced, depressed and late for a meeting, Mauricio decided in that moment to change his life.

He typed Forgive@h3r.

As he recalls in his TEDx talk, typing the password multiple times a day for 30 days meant it became an affirmation whose “healing effect was incredible”.

“If you do something everyday, consistently”, said Mauricio, “it has the potential to become a habit”. Indeed, and there are two important words here.

  • If you do something. The action of typing I believe helped shift the affirmation from a thought bubble to an embodied cognition. The mind and the body were connected in the forgiveness objective. Typing a password forces System 2 to get active as we spell out the characters and mentally rehearse what they mean, stepping out of rote and forcing us to pay attention to what we are doing.
  • If you do something consistently. Typing the password over and over everyday was key to making it stick. Typing it only occasionally would not give neuro pathways a chance to form. The password was a clever commitment device, forcing him to repeat the behaviour because he couldn’t access his files without typing the magic words.

It didn’t just stop with forgiveness for Mauricio. Realising he was on to a good thing, he used the monthly change in his password to take more photos, keep in touch with family, save for a holiday, stop drinking and quit smoking. The small act of changing his password has changed Mauricio’s life.

Hotel Wi-Fi behaviour hack

Mauricio came to mind when I was accessing Wi-Fi at a Brisbane hotel recently. Instead of the usual string of hotel name and year, they did something much smarter. The password was “Bookdirect&Save”.

While it is unlikely their customers will stay long enough to form a habit, the hotel has at least increased awareness of the benefits of booking direct. Every time I typed the password, I was primed to book direct and save money.

Don’t overlook tiny tweaks

This is what I love about behavioural economics. It’s the small tweaks – the tiny opportunities – that can make a difference to you and your business.

For example, choosing to use a noun rather than verb can impact what your customers do.

13% more people turned out to vote in US elections, for instance, when they were asked the day prior “how important is it for you to be a voter?” rather than “how important is it for you to vote?”

Why? Nouns like “voter” tap into personal identity, and we don’t like acting against how we see ourselves. Verbs like “vote” give us greater psychological distance and more scope to rationalise not doing it. Trying to exercise more? Call yourself a “runner” rather than “someone who runs”!

The NSW Behavioural Insights Team tested different words in the hope of encouraging more people to pay overdue fines. A prominent “Pay now” stamp rather than “Act Now”, together with “You owe” rather than “Amount owed” increased debt recovery by $1 million.

Tweaks can even apply to what you call meeting rooms. Researchers at Swinburne Institute of Technology are researching whether people are more creative in a room called “Innovation lab” than “Meeting room” or  “Storeroom”.

In my recent “Influence for Introverts” webinar I also shared small tweaks you can use in emails. Reframing “don’t hesitate”, “no problem” and “don’t worry” as “happy to help”, “feel free” and “we’ll take care of that” will improve the odds your message will be favourably received.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

Why an hour feels shorter than that

I thought it was just me.  When deciding what to tackle when I find myself with a free hour I invariably pick at bits and pieces rather than getting stuck into a larger, more significant task. It’s not procrastination as such, it’s more, well, a feeling that the looming scheduled task is casting a shadow over the unscheduled time. If you find the same you’ll be as interested as I was in what some behavioural researchers recently discovered.

We do less with our free time when we have a pending commitment

In “When an Hour Feels Shorter: Future Boundary Tasks Alter Consumption by Contracting Time”, researchers Tonietto, Malkoc and Nowlis (2018) examined how people perceive and consume time when they either have something to do afterwards or do not. In their words, the research was inspired by the following observation.

“One of the authors recently had a free hour and decided to use this time to design a study for her dissertation. The next night, she once again had a free hour and another study to design. However, this time her hour had a scheduled endpoint – at the end of the hour, she needed to leave the office to meet a friend for a drink. She had nothing to do to prepare and did not need to leave before the end of the hour, making the full hour objectively available to her. However, unlike the night before, she found herself feeling reluctant to design her study and instead worked on a few small tasks, managing to answer a few quick emails. Both nights, she had objectively the same amount of time to work, yet she consumed each interval very differently.”

Rationally, it shouldn’t matter if I have an obligation following a period of free time or not – an hour is an hour. But that’s not how we think about it.

Let’s say, for example, one night you are free from 7pm but have a friend coming over at 8pm. Another night you are also free from 7pm but have no plans. In both cases you have an hour (at least) free. In the first case your time is ‘bounded’ because you have a commitment following, and in the second, it is ‘unbounded’ because your time is not limited.

When the researchers put these scenarios to participants and asked them how long they subjectively thought they would read their book in the next hour, those in the bounded condition estimated could spend only 39.54 minutes whereas those in the unbounded condition thought they could read for almost 10 minutes more (48.86 mins).

Perceptions of usable time reduce when there’s a pending commitment

Importantly, when the groups were asked to objectively estimate the amount of time they could spend reading there was no significant difference (49.32 bounded/50.36 unbounded). This tells us that people are actually good at estimating the time they can theoretically allocate a task (i.e. 50 minutes of reading which gives me 10 minutes to get ready or do something else) but this may not be what they actually do, particularly when there’s another task looming (i.e. I know I can spend 50 minutes reading but I’ll actually only spend 39.)

The researchers replicated these findings over a number of studies, finding that when free time is bounded by a scheduled task, people:

  • perceive time to be shorter than those who do not have a scheduled task (so an hour isn’t an hour)
  • contract their subjective estimate of time even though their objective estimate is unaffected (consciously we know we have time but it doesn’t mean we feel it)
  • are less likely to choose longer tasks even when they are feasible, and even when those tasks are more financial rewarding
  • are just as likely to perform a single shorter task as those in an unbounded condition but are likely to undertake fewer shorter tasks

What does this mean for your productivity?

This research is interesting because “prior research…has primarily examined the effect of scheduling on the scheduled tasks. (This research) contributes…by examining how scheduling impacts the perception and ultimate consumption of available time surrounding scheduled tasks.” 

In other words, productivity is not only about what you do in your scheduled time, but how you spend your free time as well. It’s making the most of the void.

To increase the likelihood of tackling big tasks when you find yourself with time to spare, the researchers suggest breaking the task down into smaller components. They also suggest scheduling back-to-back commitments rather than having intermittent downtime.

For me, that means looking to block similar tasks together. For example, scheduling 45 minute coaching sessions within a 3 hour envelope rather than randomly sprinkled throughout the day, and breaking the development of a presentation into smaller jobs like “introduction”, “conclusion” and “image sourcing”. What about you? Does this resonate? What will you do differently?

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

Smartphone habits

It’s rare to go to a restaurant without seeing people using their smartphones these days. We seem to take them everywhere – to the beach, the movie theatre, and yes, to the bathroom. But guess what? Recent research has found the mere presence of our phones can have a significantly negative impact on our experiences.

Smartphones ruin dinner

A study by researchers at the University of British Columbia found smartphones and restaurants don’t mix. No surprise, you might think – it’s annoying to dine with someone who is constantly playing with their phone. But where this research was different was it looked at the impact on the phone user rather than their dining companions.

Sending 300 people out to dinner with their friends and family, researchers asked half of study participants to put their phones away, and the other half to leave them out. Following dinner all were surveyed about how they felt during the meal. Those who left their phones out reported being more distracted and enjoying the experience less. Surprisingly, they also reported feeling more bored.

The researchers also studied another 100 people over the course of a week, surveying them five times a day to record how they were feeling at the time and what they had been doing for the last 15 minutes. Here again they found that people enjoyed social interactions less when they were using their phones.

Smartphones ruin concentration

Researchers at the University of Nottingham Trent also got in on the smartphone act. In this case they were interested in how smartphones affected concentration. Setting 95 people a concentration task, some were asked to leave their phone in their pocket, others to place it on the desk, some had their phone locked in a drawer and others had their phones removed from the room entirely.

The study found that the leaving the phone on the desk resulted in the lowest performance. Performance on the task was greatest when the phone was in another room. In the words of the researchers, “absence rather than presence improves concentration”.

Taking charge of smartphone habits

For all their advantages, clearly there is a pernicious side to smartphones as well. They take us away from the moment and distract us with the (false) promise of undiscovered delights.

If you are interested in interrupting a smartphone habit, here are some tips using the habit breaking process outlined in my book, The How of Habits.  To help I thought I’d work through my own bad phone habit, reaching for it throughout my workday when I really shouldn’t (i.e. playing with my phone).

Part 1. Understand why you use your phone the way you do

The anatomy of a habit includes its trigger – what sparks you to do it, the routine – what you actually do, and its reward – the payoff that keeps you coming back for more. Let’s work through each element to get a handle on our behaviour.

1. Triggers (the when)

Identify what reminds you to use your phone unnecessarily by completing this statement: “I find myself reaching for my phone when…”

e.g. “I find myself reaching for my phone when I have hit a point in my work that requires deep thinking”

2. Routine (the what)

Next write down the routine you follow so you can identify points to make it more difficult. List down what you do, step by step.

e.g. First I reach for my phone that is within arm’s reach and in my line of sight

Then I unlock my phone

And then I click on emails

And then I refresh the page and see if anything is interesting

And then I click on LinkedIn

And then check Twitter

Finally I put the phone down, maybe 5-15 minutes later

3. Reward (the why)

Reward is the payoff you get from the behaviour, and is definitely the most difficult to change. Here we want to identify why you do what you do by answering: “When I use my smartphone I feel…”

e.g. When I use my smartphone I feel alleviated from the pressure of having to think. I am receiving input rather than having to generate output so it feels relaxing.

Part 2. Break the habit by targeting its anatomy

When breaking a habit it is easiest to start with the trigger, then the routine, and if all else fails, the reward.

1. Remove the trigger

You can either stop the trigger from happening or remove yourself from the trigger. If my trigger is an email or social media alert, for example, I can stop it from happening by switching the alerts off.

In my case the trigger is an emotional one when I hit a wall in my thinking. That’s going to be hard to stop, so I am better moving on to the next strategy.

2. Interrupt the routine

Making the behaviour more difficult is a good way to reduce the likelihood of it occurring. That means adapting the physical or social environment so it is more difficult (e.g. not bringing your phone to a restaurant or having your phone emit a loud noise every time you unlock it to remind you of your actions) and/or swapping the routine for something else.

For me that means leaving my phone on a bookshelf that is out of arm’s reach. If I want to access my phone it means getting up and moving to it, by which time the impulse is likely to have subsided.

It also means creating a new routine when I hit the inevitable wall, so reaching for a glass of water instead of my phone.

3. Rewire the reward

Rewiring the reward means making the behaviour as unpalatable as possible. Like bitter tasting nail polish for nail biters, rewiring the reward means changing the association from a positive to a negative. For example, if you pick up your phone you get a small electrical shock – not realistic but you get the idea!  It also means looking for an alternative way to feel rewarded.

For example, I could instead feel the reward of alleviating thinking pressure by looking out the window or sipping a glass of water. I could remove the reward by having only difficult, task-based apps on my phone that will be very unappealing when I am looking for light relief.

Smartphone habits more generally

Modifying your own behaviour is one part of the puzzle, but you may also want to change the behaviour of those around you.  Kids addicted to screens?  Colleagues tapping away through staff meetings? The fastest way is to change the environment. Have Wi-Fi-free rooms, collect all devices before dinners/meetings, provide charging points that are away from desks or bedrooms and require devices to have passcodes (they are annoying and slow impulse usage down).  If you have other suggestions, let me know.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

Disentangling urgent vs. important tasks

It was 1954.  US President Dwight D. Eisenhower stood to give a speech to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches. Wishing to communicate the dilemma of the (then) modern man, Eisenhower referred to the words of a former college president who had said “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

The Eisenhower Matrix

Fast forward to the 1990’s and time management guru Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which brought the “Eisenhower Matrix” to a new audience keen to master productivity. Put simply, the Eisenhower Matrix asks that you define tasks along two dimensions – urgency and importance, and attend to them accordingly.

In theory, that sees us prioritise tasks that are both urgent and important, while ignoring those that are neither. We then turn our attention to scheduling tasks that are important but not urgent, before tackling those that are urgent but unimportant. Or do we?

Eisenhower Matrix

Urgency trumps importance

Some new research has been looking into the murky world of how we choose between tasks that vary in their importance and urgency. More specifically, if you have one task that is not urgent but important (like switching superannuation funds), and another that is urgent but not important (like watching the latest episode of Married At First Sight), how do you choose which to do?

Rationally, and theoretically, importance should trump urgency. But in reality, we often get distracted by the urgent and procrastinate over the important.

To test this, researchers Zhu, Yang and Hsee (2018) ran a series of five experiments that had people choose between tasks that had either a high and low payoff, and were either urgent or not.

For example, after being assigned a 5-minute (urgent) or 50-minute (non urgent) deadline, participants could choose to solve 6 string letter tasks (i.e. typing a string of letters in reverse order from “rlgows” to “swoglr”) for 12 cents (low payoff) or 16 cents (high payoff).

The researchers found that people in the urgent condition (5 mins) were significantly more likely to opt for the low payoff (12c).  In one test, 35.3% of people chose the low payoff when they were in the urgent group, compared with only 13.9% in the 50-minute condition. In another, the results were 48.1% vs. 7.3%.

Urgency drives priorities

What does this tell us? People are more likely to prioritise unimportant tasks (i.e. those with a low payoff) when there is a sense of urgency.

Further, the researchers were at pains to ensure the sense of urgency was just that – an illusion. In other words, people had more than enough time even in the urgent condition to complete the task, but they felt a heightened sense of urgency anyway.

This they dubbed the “Mere Urgency Effect”, where the salience of urgency diverts our focus from task importance. In short, the reality of how we prioritise Eisenhower’s Matrix is different to theory.

According to the researchers “These findings support our thesis that restricted time frames elicit attention, diverting focus away from the magnitudes of task outcomes, and that this shift in attentional focus leads to a stronger preference for urgent tasks with low payoffs over important tasks with higher payoffs yet longer completion windows.”

The research also revealed:

  • The mere urgency effect can be nullified by being reminded of the outcome at the moment of choice (for instance, being reminded that you are choosing 12c rather than 16c at the point of decision). This is called “outcome salience”, where attention is shifted from the timeframe to the outcome.
  • People were more likely to mention thoughts of the deadline than the outcome when they were in an urgent condition, suggesting it was playing on their mind
  • People who perceive themselves as being busy are more susceptible to the mere urgency effect because time is on their mind

Tips for you

As this latest research attests, it is not the bookends of the Eisenhower Matrix where the challenge lies. It is pretty clear that urgent and important tasks should be prioritised, and non-urgent, unimportant tasks ignored.

The challenge lies in the middle, where you have to make decisions about where to focus your attention. Unfortunately, our psychological make-up suggests that (ostensibly) urgent issues will tend to usurp importance, and that can mean we waste precious resources on the wrong things.

Of course, that means to get people to take action you could instill a sense of urgency, but crying wolf may only get you so far.  False urgency will erode trust pretty quickly.

To overcome the mere urgency effect in yourself you should:

  • seek ways of reminding yourself about the outcome rather than the timeline and make this your focus (outcome salience)
  • stop thinking of yourself as ‘busy’ (a time-related construct), and instead think of yourself as ‘productive’, which is more outcome related, and
  • consider mindfulness techniques to disconnect yourself from perceived urgency, calming your mind and giving you greater perspective

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

Productivity hacks

Everyone has the same 24 hours in a day, right?  I was recently presenting and guesting at one of Australia’s best health retreats, which gave me the chance to reflect on my work and lifestyle habits.  Here are four tips about how you can optimise your time and productivity.

1. Schedule 50 minute hours

How do you get more out of an hour? By making it 50 minutes. One of the most counter-intuitive aspects of relaxing at a health retreat is how big a role time plays. In this case, activities were planned on the hour, and ran for 50 minutes. There were two benefits in this. First, the 50 minutes became more productive because distractions were eliminated and second, 10 minutes transition time meant you always felt unrushed.

For you that means considering scheduling blocks of an hour, which become the ‘capsule’ for whatever activity you slot in (e.g. email, meetings, writing blogs) but only conducting the activity for 50 minutes. In the 10 minutes left over you can check your phone, have a bathroom break, walk to your next meeting…whatever.

It will enable you and your colleagues to focus on the activity at hand for 50 minutes (the maximum attention span anyway) and then leave the fidgeting to the 10-minute transition.

2. Eliminate low-grade decisions

Obama famously only wore suits in two colours, blue or grey, so he could save his energy for important decisions. At the retreat, decisions like what activities were on the program and what to eat were taken out of our hands. The result? We could focus our energy on more important endeavours.

The reality, of course, is that life is full of low-grade but necessary decisions. Your opportunity though, is to streamline as many as possible so you don’t get depleted.  Habits play a big role in this, so starting your workday in the same way (same breakfast, same train, same coffee spot) can eliminate the need to think too hard. Similarly, having pre-formatted emails, presentations and documents means you can focus on what you put in the communications rather than how.

3. Focus on the present

At the retreat we were only told about the next day once we got back to our villas at night, meaning we didn’t waste any of the current day thinking about tomorrow. What we did know was certain ‘anchor’ activities would happen every day, like 6am wake-up, 8am breakfast, 9am stretch and 6pm dinner. The result? We could enjoy the moment feeling assured that the rest of the week would unfold as we got there.

Again, you’ll get into a bit of trouble if you try that in the real world, but the lesson of giving your attention to what’s before you is valid. I shouldn’t stress about a meeting on Friday because it’s not Friday yet. In fact I am better to use my time in this moment to prepare myself for the meeting so by the time it rolls around I won’t be stressed. Always ask yourself, “can I do anything about that now?” If the answer is no, don’t waste your energy.

The other avenue to focussing on the present is being present with others. When they talk, listen. When they look at you, look back. The quality of the interaction will be vastly improved and will bypass the need for follow up emails and clarifications. (The fastest way to be present with someone, by the way, is to put away the phone).

4. Let the environment make decisions for you

Why think about how much you should eat when your bowl size can do it for you? One of my favourite behavioural studies found that people ate 31% more ice-cream when they were given a bigger bowl. These people, by the way, were nutrition experts. The point is how much our environment shapes behaviour, so by setting up the right environment, our decisions will follow suit.

In the workplace that means having quiet zones if you want people to think deeply, break out areas for discussion, high ceilings for brainstorming, low ceilings for focus, chairs in circles for collaboration, and angular formation for independent thinking. You can cue behaviour simply by creating the right space.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

The lighthouse approach to productivity

On his tour in Australia last year, ”Start with Why” author Simon Sinek confessed a strange productivity hack he had adopted; a babysitter.  As a fully functioning adult male, Simon has employed someone to come to his apartment and babysit him while he works.

While this may seem extreme, Simon has realised that the presence of another person helps moderate his behaviour. Less surfing the net, watching TV and staring into the fridge.

But an adult’s babysitter is nothing compared with the lengths a famously quirky Icelandic singer-songwriter went to to write her album. In a story recounted by Oliver Sacks’ partner Bill Hayes, Bjork chose to write her album in a lighthouse. Free from distraction, she had no opportunity to leave until the tide changed each evening.

Commitment devices

What we are talking about here are commitment devices; strategies we can employ to save us from ourselves.  Commitment devices are recognition that we are good at weaseling out of promises we make to ourselves – like not snacking after dinner or fiddling with our phone when we should be writing a blog (ahem), for example.

The weaseling pattern arises because we typically make a commitment in a ‘cold state’, using our System 2, rational thinking to set a goal that will impact us sometime in the future.  When the time comes to act on that commitment however, we are often in a ‘hot state’, using System 1 emotional, impulsive thinking to guide our behaviour. If we feel differently about our goal in that moment we tend to rationalise it away, convincing ourselves that it was a dumb idea in the first place.

To force ourselves to follow through on our commitment we sometimes need a little help. That means removing options to behave in ways counter to our objective. Simon is using the social pressure of a babysitter to stop him from getting distracted and Bjork is removing herself quite literally from the ability to do anything other than write.

If you can’t afford a babysitter or lighthouse, don’t worry. An everyday commitment device that is becoming increasingly popular is a timed lockable container called kSafe. A plastic storage tub, you can lock your smartphone, tablet or snacks away for a designated period of time, with access only granted once the timer reaches zero.

Other commitment devices include:

  • Pledging money to a charity if you fail to do what you say you’ll do (stickK helps people do this)
  • Joining the military to get fit (!)
  • Freezing your credit card in a block of ice
  • Buying single serve snacks so you are less inclined to binge the lot
  • Paying superannuation now so you have money in the future
  • Going to a café without internet to focus on your work
  • Using an old style piggy bank that needs to be smashed open
  • Selling your car if you want to ride to work

Implications for you

Commitment devices offer obvious personal advantages. You can improve your productivity and health by removing the temptation to behave otherwise.

But don’t overlook the opportunity for you to be the commitment device for your customers (or staff) too. What might they need help sticking to? Can you support them by being their accountability corner?  Talk with them about what they want to achieve and what self-created distractions might derail their attempt. Who knows? They may even be willing to pay a premium for your help in keeping them on track.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.