Use The Science Of ‘Behavior Design’ To Bring Out The Best In Yourself

Part 2 of 2

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What is behavior design and how can it help me?

New ground-breaking work is being done that has the potential to benefit every one of us.

Whether or not you reap the benefit is in your hands.

At Stanford University, a team of researchers has formed a new ‘Behavior Design Lab’ to address a timeless, critical need. This team, digging into the origins of human behavior, applies multi-disciplined, scientific perspectives to find the recondite causes of the wide range of behaviors and habits that we bring to our world every day.

This work has produced value, in the form of a systematic approach that is simple to use in changing behavior for the better: A self-development tool that makes it easy for people to form behavioral habits we desire, as well as to break behavioral habits that don’t serve us well.

Our last article, part 1, showcased the systematic approach of Behavioral Design to start new behaviors and make them habits. Today’s article completes the mini-series, highlighting ways you can apply behavior design to weed out behaviors you want to stop doing.

As you’ve probably predicted, this begins with self-awareness. Studies have show that while most of us are strongly convinced we are self-aware, only 10-15% of people have self-awareness.

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There Are 2 Types of Self-Awareness

Public Self-Awareness

Public Self-Awareness is understanding how others perceive you and experience your presence. It’s recognizing how others react to your behavior, as well as how they see you, packed with your behavior, values, visions and aspirations, strengths and challenges, fitting into and impacting their world.

Private Self-Awareness

Private Self-Awareness is being able to use your own special type of mirror to look at and recognize your feelings, thoughts, and actions. It’s knowing who you are, including your values, your vision and aspirations for your future, and acknowledging how you react emotionally, intellectually, and behaviorally, to other people and factors in your environment. It’s understanding how you impact others. And, it includes recognizing your strengths and development needs.

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Five Key Scientific Facts

Our research surfaced the following interesting facts rooted in science.   

  1. Self-awareness begins to develop when we are infants.
  2. The way different parts of the brain work together has a powerful impact on the development of self-awareness. In addition, the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, located in the frontal lobe of the brain, also plays a key role.  
  3. Self-awareness involves a skill known as metacognition, the act of introspection. You apply this ability whenever you think about how you think, including how you assess your mental skills (such as reflecting on the accuracy of your decisions and judgments).
  4. While all of us practice metacognition throughout each day, some of us are better at it than others. Neural Science points us to the Anterior Prefrontal Cortex, where grey matter resides, for its specific impact on the accuracy of the decisions and judgments we make. Differences in grey matter from one person to another affect each individual’s self-awareness and metacognition capabilities.
  5. The Anterior Prefrontal Cortex is anatomically unique to humans.

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How To Strengthen Your Self-Awareness

Soliciting feedback from others doesn’t always succeed in uncovering difficult truths about ourselves. People are often uncomfortable and less open in providing feedback. Some may be reluctant to create conflict. We may not always be willing to accept the truth in someone’s feedback. And, others may fear retaliation for giving this type of feedback.

But, soliciting feedback is not the only way to obtain actionable self-knowledge. The following tools are easily available online at low or no cost. Note, that clicking on the links below will take you away from this webpage.

When you decide to ask others for feedback, we recommend the approach by Marshall Goldsmith, whose video was published on Charthouse Learning long ago, an uncommon framework that stuck with me because I’ve seen it work. It includes the following 5 steps:

  1. Ask 2. Listen 3. Thank 4. Think 5. Follow Through

Ask: Think about your request for feedback from the giver’s point of view. It is helpful to people to have time to gather their thoughts before sharing them. Explain that you’re looking for their observations as part of an effort you’re making to strengthen your skills. Ask for a brief one-on-one meeting.

Listen: As the individual provides the feedback, listen without interrupting until they are finished. Take quick, concise notes. Then, ask only clarifying questions, to help ensure you gain an accurate and complete message from the person. It’s human nature to feel defensive about corrective feedback, and your challenge and role in this dialog is successfully setting aside your emotions to focus instead on understanding and embracing it, even when the feedback is painful for you to hear.

Thank: Now is not the time to justify, defend or explain the behavior or performance referenced in the feedback. Manage your emotional reactions. Feedback is a gift. One that people struggle to give. Appreciate it. Summarize what you heard. Say “Thank You,” smile and nod once.

Think: Once the meeting is done, go to a private spot to review the feedback. Pull out the most important, highest-impact pieces and list actions you can take that you believe directly hit the mark. Making time to practice changes in behavior is usually helpful for behavior changes. Then, implement your changes.

Follow Through: You’re not finished yet. Sustaining your positive changes on a day-to-day basis is a must. Schedule personal reflection at least once a day, at times when you can assess progress and the impact of making those changes. Failing to monitor and assess a behavior change often enough can lead to forgetting about it or avoiding doing it. Your relationship and credibility are at stake. Once you’ve made these changes into habits, meet with your feedback-provider and let him/her know what you’ve been doing to apply the feedback, and thank him/her again.

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Using Behavior Design to Stop A Behavior That Isn’t Serving You Well

If you’ve been using insights gained from reflecting on Part 1 (our last article) to add shiny, new behaviors into your routines, you now have a foundation you can leverage further.

This foundation will provide strength and confidence to make the more difficult changes: stopping behavior or breaking a habit.

Stopping a behavior is much more challenging than starting a new behavior. But, you probably already know that, from experience. Haven’t we all tried at some time to quit doing something that has become automatic, a habit? And, haven’t most of us experienced failure at least once? Research indicates just 20% of those who set New Year’s Resolutions succeed at keeping them.

One reason many of us fail to break habits is we rely on Willpower. We steel ourselves for the teeth-gritting use of Willpower to endure a fight for success. We now know that, contrary to popular belief, Willpower is not an effective tool to make lasting behavior change.

If you’ve already got some failures in your past on this score, fear not. Behavior change is a challenge. Like other challenges you’ve faced successfully, practice and effective tools are powerful enablers. The experience of using behavior design to add new behavioral habits can be leveraged to stop behavioral habits that you choose to leave behind.

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Behavior Design Offers Several Approaches To Stop Doing A Behavior

Success at stopping a behavior often requires more than one approach and more than one effort. Keep in mind as you apply any strategy that a habit of mindful awareness is a tool you can power up your efforts to stop automatic behaviors.

Don’t allow challenges and any early failures to stop you. It’s hard work for everyone.

6 Methods To Stop Habitual Behavior

As you know, Behavior results when Motivation, Ability, and a Prompt come together. To stop doing a habit, design your behavior by addressing one or more of these three factors.

1. Remove or Avoid The Prompt

If we can remove the Prompt, we’ll stop the behavior. Write down the behavior you want to stop. What’s the first action you take in doing the behavior? Often, envisioning yourself doing the behavior will help to identify the Prompt.

Once you identify the Prompt, ask yourself: “How might I remove, avoid or make it easy to ignore the Prompt?” For example, seeing the donut shop on your work route is a Prompt, you could consider removing the prompt by taking a different route without a donut shop. If seeing a dessert menu is a Prompt, you could make it easy to avoid the Prompt by removing the dessert menu and informing the Server, “No dessert please” while being seated.

Ignoring a Prompt requires skill. Willpower is woefully inadequate over time. Mastering mindful awareness is one option. Another is applying Self-Regulation, a proven-effective practice that is a core capability in the Emotional Intelligence toolkit.

Willpower is not reliable when the Prompt is frequently present, because you can only ignore a Prompt so many times before willpower weakens. If you need to ignore a Prompt now and then, willpower can work. But, for lasting change, you’ll need mindful awareness and/or self-regulation.

People, places, and media can all be Prompts. Consider not going places where you’ll be Prompted; It’s best not to spend time with people who Prompt you; Make sure others know not to put Prompts in your environment; And, turn off, avoid, or put away media that prompt you.

2. Make It Hard to Do

If there is not an effective way to remove or avoid the Prompt consistently, the next step is to focus on Ability. Ask yourself, “How can I make this hard to do?” Ability is how easy it is for you to do a behavior. The factors that impact Ability are Time, Money, Physical Effort, Mental Effort, or Routine. Those factors can be used in lots of different ways to make a behavior hard to do.

Often, making a change in your environment can impact one or more of these factors. For example, I don’t keep sweets in my house. If I want to eat something sweet, I have to go to the store and buy it. That takes time when I might want to be doing something else. It’s a physical effort to get dressed, get in the car, drive to the store, shop, drive home and then eat the sweet. And, taking that unplanned trip to the store can get in the way of a routine you have that I want to do. All of these make it hard to do the behavior. One way I make it harder to snack after dinner is to brush my teeth right after the meal.

3. Reduce The Underlying Motivation

If making it hard to do the behavior wasn’t doable, the next step is to reduce or eliminate your Motivation to do the task. Motivation is more complex and is often the most difficult of the elements to change because it’s internal.

If you determine the roots of the emotion behind your motivation, and your desire to do the behavior, you may be able to identify a strategy. Try asking yourself, “What is the reward or benefit I receive for doing this behavior?” Self-reflection on your own or with the support of a counselor or coach may be helpful.

For example, if stress from work generates motivation for the undesired behavior, you might undertake a strategy of stress reduction, such as taking up activities such as meditation, yoga, exercise, or sports. What works for someone else in reducing motivation is often unlikely to work because people are not the same. You may need to invest time to look within.

In addition, creating “hard stops” can sometimes help to reduce the desire to do a behavior. For example, if you are stopping using the snooze button to help get up earlier in the morning, set up a hard stop to get to sleep earlier. Shut down your computer and put your phone in another room to charge at a designated time well ahead of lights out. Remind yourself what time you want to get to sleep and the benefits of getting to sleep at that time. This helps magnify the reward of winding down your day earlier.

4. Plan Gradual, Phased-In Change

If the above strategies don’t work, you may want to plan a gradual change, using periods. For example, stop the behavior for one day; once you’ve done that easily, stop the behavior for some time such as three days or a week; and continue to increase the timeframe as you succeed.

Or, you may prefer to scale the habit down, reducing the instances you’ll allow yourself to do it (for example, you could start by allowing 1 soda a day; when that’s easy and automatic, you could decrease it to 1 soda a week, and so on). Or, adjust the intensity/amount of soda you drink (for example, you could start with allowing yourself 8 ounces of soda each day; eventually decreasing to 8 ounces a week, and so on.) These types of reductions can effectively set you up for success in stopping the undesired behavior over time.

5. Break The Behavior Into Pieces

Another method is to break the behavior you want to stop down into all of the little, individual actions it involves. Then, select a single action that is easy for you to stop, and use the techniques above to stop doing that one action.

Stop every single action long enough to make the change automatic for yourself, before targeting another. By stopping the little, individual actions that comprise the undesired behavior, you’re dismantling and eventually eliminating it.

6. Replace It With A New Behavior

A. Make the undesired behavior hard to do, and less motivating. While it’s optimum to do both of these, you can still succeed if you do just one (either make it hard to do or make it less motivating).

B. Next, be careful in choosing the new behavior. It needs to be something you enjoy and want to do. Maybe it’s something you’ve wished you had time for, but haven’t been able to do it. Don’t choose something because you feel you “should” do it, because it’s healthy, or because it’s just a good habit to form.

Your motivation to do the new behavior must be strong, and it needs to be something you can do easily.

C. You’ll need to use the new behavior in response to the Prompt that has led you into the undesired behavior. This means you’ll need to teach yourself to respond to the “old” Prompt with the “new” behavior. It takes practice. Remember to write down your Recipe.

There’s a learning process we often encounter when replacing an established behavior with new behavior. It has to do with getting used to making that switch in response to the Prompt. It tends to happen like this:

  • At first, you may catch yourself doing the undesired behavior automatically, when prompted, instead of doing the replacement behavior, after the fact — when it’s too late to switch. Keep practicing. You’ll progress.
  • You may soon catch yourself again, but now you are catching yourself as you start to do the undesired behavior. Stop as soon as you’re aware, and do the replacement behavior.
  • The third progression is catching yourself before you start to do the undesirable behavior, in response to the Prompt, in time to switch to the new behavior.

Additional Support For Success

  • Let your friends and family know what you’re doing. Ask for their feedback and support in maintaining an environment without Prompts that will lead you into undesired behaviors.
  • Join groups with shared goals and interests.
  • Get a partner. Working with someone who wants to stop a behavior can be very helpful. It doesn’t have to be the same behavior as you’ve chosen to stop. It’s the sharing of the experience and the ability to talk about it that has value.
  • Take a class, seminar, or course in behavior change.
  • Track your progress using a chart or graph.
  • Find the right coach.
  • Research online or visit a book store to read and learn about the change you’re making.
  • Get periodic feedback.
  • If an effort fails, identify what went wrong so that you can prevent the same issue from obstructing you again.
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Conclusion

Starting new behaviors builds your knowledge and skills to manage behavior change, and strengthens your self-confidence in the process. This is the foundation for building one’s ability to stop behaviors that are established and habitual. Stopping a behavior can be very difficult; we’ve all experienced failures at stopping behaviors.

While the science of Behavior Design is not magic, it is a practice that can be transformational. By doing it, you positively impact your success, your credibility, your relationships, your organization, and other people.

If you struggle using the above methods, don’t quit. Maintain your confidence in your ability to change, by temporarily switching modes, and building another new behavior. Just make sure the new behavior is unrelated to stopping the undesirable one.

One of the most freeing aspects of self-improvement is that you’re making choices for yourself for the present and the future. You’re the pilot, setting your direction and pace. It’s about you and it’s for you. One of my favorite quotes, from an unknown wise person, is this one: The best project you’ll ever work on is you.

Please share your thoughts and opinions on Behavior Design and this article? We welcome feedback, sharing experience, and suggestions.

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