Behavior Design has long been a passion of mine. This area of study asks questions like:
- Why do some of our actions feel easy and some feel incredibly difficult?
- Why do people say they want something, but act in the opposite manner?
- How does changing behavior differ on the individual and group/organizational level?
- What can we learn from changemakers throughout history?
As an economist by training, I believe behavior always comes down to an equation of incentives. In that equation, whichever behavior makes me better off, I will choose. As silly as it sounds, some people don’t assume humans behave rationally. They will instead assume deliberate irrationality.
Outrage culture is a perfect example. A white woman calls the cops on a young black man who is just hanging out in a mall, and a conclusion folks arrive at is: “She knows it’s racist, she knows that people are filming her and she’ll get blasted on social media, but she does it anyway….because she’s a horrible person and doesn’t give a shit.” If she agreed with that statement, and did it anyway, I can understand feeling pretty pissed off at her. That’s more or less a psychopath, and they do exist.
But… 99.9% of the time, she wouldn’t agree with that statement. In her mind, her actions would be completely rational. I won’t pretend to agree with whatever narrative she spins, but I believe that she fully believes it. If we say that there is no explanation for her behavior, then we say there is nothing we can do to change it. Wrong. Deliberate irrationality isn’t human nature. We are wired to act in our believed best interests.
With that in mind, we can use the theories described in Switch to alter our balance of pros and cons and push our rational selves toward better or more desirable behaviors.
1 – Switch’s Behavior Model
Switch introduces a model that describes the internal conflicts of changing our behavior. Instead of thinking of ourselves as one unit, they split us up into a logical Rider sitting on an emotional Elephant, and a Path they’re both on.
Our Riders are rational actors. They excel at analyzing situations, finding problems, and seeking solutions. They can think long-term. However, they are prone to over-thinking and analysis paralysis.
In contrast, our Elephants are emotional and identity driven. They can act much faster than Riders, and feel a sense of satisfaction and happiness. However, they think short-term and can be intimidated.
The Path refers to the environment in which change occurs. Behavior is contagious, and we can use that to our advantage.
The Rider can direct the Elephant, but not control him. The Elephant can get the Rider moving when he’s unsure, and when the Elephant is emotional, the Rider can calm him down. As a team, they do best when they agree where to go, can focus on their strengths, and make up for each other’s weaknesses.
Personally, I think I am really good at shaping the Path, ok at working with my Rider, but awful at reaching my Elephant.
2 – Shaping the Path
This is the most intuitive part of the book to me, I’ve been doing this for a very long time. Want to eat better? Stop buying junk food. Don’t have it around the house! Want to exercise more? Buy an exercise bike, put it somewhere visible. Make your environment conducive to success, and challenging for failure. I recommend doing this in high moments of motivation – you’ll laugh when you kick yourself later.
I block myself from a bunch of distracting websites in the morning, and inevitably I try to visit them in the afternoon, and crack up. Damn morning Will, he’s always pushing afternoon Will! Here are other things I’ve done to push myself into the “right” actions, mostly pertaining to being less distractible:
- Move to Mexico / go full digital nomad
- Stopped actively engaging in group chats
- Turned off all notifications except for phone calls
- Unfollowed 90% of my friends on Instagram
- Paused dating
- Grayscaled my iPhone
- Deleted my LinkedIn
My problem is I do such a good job of shaping my environment, I make myself miserable. I’m good at extreme. More on this in the Elephant section – big growth opportunity!
3 – How I work with my Rider
Riders respond to logic and specificity. When you have Rider problems, it’s usually from ambiguity in your goals, or an overly negative perspective. Human psychology weighs bad > good, even if they are exactly 50/50.
I’m pretty good at scripting the critical moves which means prescribing specific actions and removing ambiguity. Don’t tell people to eat healthier, instead, tell them to swap bread for salad every chance they get. Even more specifically, say “no bread”. Diets like Keto and Slow-Carb which have worked well for me behave like this.
I do need to work on following the bright spots though. Smart people want to flex their problem solving skills on themselves = “I’m broken, I’ll fix me.” But that’s really negative and even if works only takes us from more broken –> less broken. Instead, Switch advocates focusing on bright spots and learning from them.
I’m practicing this in my code school. Typically, I kick myself for not hitting my 3 hours/day goal. A constant source of disappointment, lol. I’ve been time-tracking, so I see how close I am to 100 hours this month (21%). Instead of beating myself down even more, I decided to find bright spots – the days that I did code over 3 hours – and analyze why I did well.
There were two such days – one in the lead up to a formal exam, which isn’t replicable, and the other where I woke up early and coded first thing, before the gym, before eating, anything. I put a stake in the ground there to try to replicate that. I love working out and stuff, but coding is more important right now. I went a level deeper and asked what is preventing me from doing this every day? Not waking up early enough. Ok, why? I’m staying up too late. Ok, why? I’m watching YouTube on my iPad in my room. Ok – boom, there it is. The change is to move the iPad out of my room into the living room, and keep it there. I did that last night, and it helped me get better sleep.
Except that I brought my phone into my room and watched YouTube on that sucker! HAHA. So tonight, I will level up my change a bit, from iPad –> iPad and iPhone in the living room. I feel excited that these small changes could solve my #1 pain point in life right now. I’m not beating myself up, I’m amplifying my strengths.
Lastly on my Rider, he needs me to point to the destination. I don’t have a big exciting outcome right now that all my coding and focus is pointing toward. I do think it’s going somewhere powerful, but I couldn’t paint you a picture of it. I get this question often, and I usually wax a story about the intersection of health, wellness, ecommerce and software, but that doesn’t really mean anything to the Rider. He wants black and white. Did I do it or not? The cool thing about the Rider is once he has a destination, he will automatically apply his analytical skills to find a way there.
I will spend some serious time here in the next week and come back to this post with my thought. I know there’s an outcome that would get me super pumped, perhaps I’m afraid to admit what it is? To be continued soon.
4 – The Elephant in my room
I think I have one of the most beaten down Elephants of all time. I almost never prioritize my short-term or emotional wellbeing. The last time I recall making a move purely for happiness was back in early 2019. I wanted to be around my friends, and I was making money at Perfect Keto, so I moved from Portland to Denver where they lived. I then splurged on an insane loft apartment that I loved. It was worth every penny!
Coming to Mexico was 100% my Rider’s idea. I need to find the feeling, some kind of emotional win that will align my Riders directions (“Isolate yourself and code 3 hours a day!”) with my elephants desire (“I miss friends!”). One solution I’m circling here is moving to Playa Del Carmen for August instead of Puerto Vallarta, where there are more young people and I have a friend from high school. In fact, as I say this, I’ll commit to doing it. Done.
Thinking bigger, I need some kind of BHAG that satisfies my diverse set of interests: ecommerce, coding, youtube, fitness, productivity, the list goes on. If I neglect any of these, I miss it. I think my Rider’s right, all of the actions I’m taking are net-positive for my skills and abilities, but to what end? Where’s the pot of (emotional) gold at the end of this rainbow? My Elephant wants to know, and so do I.
I’ve also traditionally been terrible at shrinking the change which I allluded to a bit with my iPad/iPhone example. If it doesn’t feel big, it often doesn’t feel worth doing. But in my nutrition game, I’ve seen huge gains from doing one tiny thing – eating slower. I just try to eat slow, do some meditative breathing, and lo and behold, I’m taking home leftovers all the time. I’m getting leaner, and actually being in PV it’s necessary to undereat a bit since I do soooo much walking. I can’t gut bomb and suffer all the way home.
The last thing my Elephant needs is a sense of growth and identity. I can think of only a few moments in the last few months that I’ve really celebrated my behavior. And yet, I’m in the best shape I’ve been in a while, I have less back pain, more money, and code more than ever! There must be a couple small things I can do to make myself feel more like a “successful entrepreneur”, “martial artist”, or “fit fam” hahaha. I am growing, but my identity, my ideas of myself are lagging.
5 – Conclusion
It’s not surprising for me to see that my Elephant is getting obliterated, but it is illuminating that the Elephant can override the Rider if he’s sufficiently fed up. Remember, the Elephant is huge in comparison, and if he’s going left, he’s going left.
I’ve got to focus on a BHAG that gets me emotionally excited, like for the first 18 years of my life, all my Rider and Elephant cared about was getting into Stanford. That was such a powerful driving force. I have this weird sense my Rider knows what the destination is, and I just need him to vocalize it.
Second, I just need to let my Elephant have input. What’s the 80/20 of no distractions? 20% distracted would be worth it to have more friends around 24/7.
Last, identity. I’m so hard on myself I don’t want to identify as an entrepreneur until I have a thriving business. But my buddy Jordache just coached me through some of this stuff – everyone has a start. I compare myself to guys like Jack Dorsey and I feel like a slobodan. But if I do start a company, good or bad, I AM an entrepreneur. At some point, the big dogs started where I am, in their first company. Imposter syndrome be damned. When I start, I’ve made it.
Until next time. It’s always me vs. me, and you vs. you.