Regular readers of the blog will know that I’ve been trying a variety of experiments over the past year in order to lose weight. Things were going slowly until suddenly, in late July, I started working out 5-6 times a week. This wasn’t by design – without really thinking about it too much, I just started going to the gym almost every night. I don’t like going to the gym – what the hell was going on?
The short answer is that we’d just moved out of our house in Rhode Island (with an hour commute) and into an apartment building with a gym (a half mile from work). Suddenly, I had more time, and could just pop down to the basement, hop on a treadmill and lift some weights, with extremely little effort. In Pawtucket, I’d had a membership at a gym about a mile away – but a short drive, having to pack clothes, change and shower at the gym, were just too much of a psychological barrier for someone who doesn’t like going to the gym.
We usually think of difficulty as a continuum from easy to hard, but most people don’t experience life that way. Things are either absurdly easy, in which case they can become a frictionless part of our routine; or they’re easy, in which case we have to push ourselves to do them (and frequently fail); or they’re hard, in which case we don’t even try unless fate or chance intervenes. Most of the time, “hard” can be defined as “something we’ve never done before.” Maybe it’s easy, maybe not, but there’s an intermediate step between desire and action – figuring out how to do the damn thing – and that’s all that’s necessary to derail good intentions.
Cooking is like this. There are a dozen things that I cook all the time – I always have the ingredients on hand, I know how long they take, and I can experiment with different parameters if I’m in the mood. But everything else is “hard.” This was brought home to me a couple weeks back, when I was trying to figure out what to do with some pumpkin I’d cooked. Completely randomly, I looked up a recipe for pumpkin gnocchi – which I’d never made before, and thus was “hard.” I happened to have all the important ingredients, so what the hell, I gave it a shot – and it came out great! They were more like dumplings than gnocchi, I used a jar of tomato sauce instead of home-made sage butter, but who cares? Everyone loved them, and home-made gnocchi is no longer “hard.”
WordChamp, my failed startup, was like this. When students are told to memorize foreign language vocabulary, they aren’t told how. They don’t know when they’re done. They don’t know if they did it right until the following day’s quiz. And so there’s an entire level of anxiety purely due to the fact that memorizing vocabulary is “hard” – which is why so many students simply don’t. On WordChamp, we gave them a big red button (literally) that started their homework assignment; the assignment was made up of tasks that were individually very simple; and once they were done, they knew the vocabulary. Some students did their assignments a dozen times or more. We had changed a task from “hard” to “absurdly easy,” and students responded.
In design, people talk a lot about “affordance.” The idea is that the shape or presentation of a feature should implicitly explain its usage. So, if you need to pull a door to open it, there should be handle. If you need to push, there should be a flat panel. Knobs are twisted, buttons pushed, levers pulled. But how do you work on affordance in your life? Or rather, how can we move the things we want to do into the default position? We can’t just tell ourselves to “try harder!” “be vigilant!” “Don’t fall into that trap!” People don’t work that way – we’re all overscheduled, 99% of the time we’re running on auto-pilot, and even so we’re overwhelmed by all the random crap we have to think about. Worse, when we do fall into good habits, it’s easy to get knocked off track by any change in our routine.
To wit – last month was great! I broke through my plateau, hit my target weight for one glorious day, and even made pretty good work of those damn shorts. Turns out that kung fu movies are the secret to distracting yourself on the treadmill. Anyway, I’ve had a cold for the past couple days which has prevented me from running, and I’m about to move into a new house without a conveniently located gym. This would be a really easy time for me to drop the habit because it had gone from absurdly easy to “hard”. But this is important to me, and I’m privileged to be in a position to be able to set up my new environment in advance to afford more healthy behaviors. Buying a treadmill, getting some weights for the basement, and so on.
Ultimately, this is the key – first, to understand consciously that X is important to you, and second, to actively decide to set up your environment to make it the default, or at least an easier choice. Eat before you go to the grocery store so you don’t make snap purchases, leading to fewer bad options at home. Have exercise equipment on hand, and multiple pairs of shorts, shirt, etc., so that you can’t get derailed by a lack of clean laundry. But this isn’t just about personal health, it’s about work habits, personal interactions, learning, etc. Pick something, right now, that’s important to you and that you aren’t doing. What could you do to move it to “absurdly easy”?
As for me, I’ll be adding two more rules in November, which I think should just about do it:
- No fruit salad at work
- No second helpings
Also, one clarification of a previous rule: I am allowed to eat sweet baked goods I baked myself, or which are for birthdays, holidays, etc. It’s too sad not to be able to have a piece of birthday cake (the no second helpings rule still applies).
It’s interesting – it’s been almost a round year since I began, and I feel like I’m getting to the goals I set. It’s probably time to start thinking about other areas of my life which could use some better affordance…