When you begin any new self-improvement program, you’re enthusiasm is high and you’re motivated by the pleasure of what you want or the pain of what you don’t want. But motivation naturally diminishes with time.
When your motivation wanes, you rely more on willpower. But no one has an endless supply of willpower. It’s a resource that gets “used up”. Every time you will yourself do something you don’t really want to do, you use up some willpower. Every temptation you pass up depletes your willpower reserve.
By evening, you may find you have no willpower left. That’s why most people usually blow a new diet in the evening after eating healthy all day.
95% of our life is dictated by the subconscious mind, the part of our brain that runs our lives on autopilot. This is why you can do everything from brushing your teeth to driving a car without thinking about it.
By consciously deciding to create a new habit, you can harness the power of your unconscious to create a new neural pathway. Once a new habit is established it becomes easy to do –motivation and willpower are no longer required!
Something like financial planning needs to become a habit like brushing your teeth, not a fad like dieting or exercise. Once a habit is established people find themselves doing it effortlessly.
Set Small Goals
Setting big goals is exciting but starting with small boring goals is more likely to lead to success.
Taking small actions tricks your brain. Your subconscious likes to be in control – it doesn’t like change. A big change often sets up subconscious resistance, but you can sneak a small change by it.
If you ask neuroscientists or researchers they will likely tell you that change rarely happens overnight by changing something in its entirety. The best path to sustainable behavioral change is taking small steps.
It wasn’t that long ago that we’d go big or go home on wholesale redesigns of online services every year or so. What a massive error that was.
Now we have a far greater understanding of the human brain that we design services with micro changes and more importantly introduce micro-actions – actions so small and simple anyone can do them – is crucial to changing the behavior of your audience.
Your actions are a reflection of how your brain is wired to function. By changing an audiences actions – even if we start with a micro-action – you can actually start to reprogram the brain, and trigger a virtuous circle of more action. Changing subsequent actions thus becomes both easier and more likely to succeed.
As Designers we’re in the business of behavioral change and we want to try and create experiences that make the audience do only one daily action, they’ll soon start to I notice that they become more conscious of other small things they could do better.
Design for the mindset of “what small thing could I do better today?”
How your brain learns
Not long ago was it thought that the brain stops learning after a certain age. Not true, it doesn’t! The brain keeps learning throughout your life through a process called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity – also referred to as Brain plasticity – is an odd term for most people, with the word “plastic” causing images of Tupperware or Saran Wrap to pop into your head. However, brain plasticity is a common term used by neuroscientists, referring to the brain’s ability to change at any age – for better or worse. As you would imagine, this flexibility plays an incredibly important role in our brain development (or decline) and in shaping our distinct personalities.
Neuroplasticity happens when the brain’s building blocks, neurons, connect with each other and keep the brain active!
Changes in the physical brain manifest as changes in our abilities. For example, each time we learn a new dance step, it reflects a change in our physical brains: new “wires” (neural pathways) that give instructions to our bodies on how to perform the step. Each time we forget someone’s name, it also reflects brain change— “wires”that once connected to the memory have been degraded, or even severed.
Neurons want to form lasting relationships
We have as many neurons in our brain as stars in our galaxy. Hundreds of billions. Neurons are very social and want to form lasting relationships. When you learn, new neuron relationships are formed. The more you use a relationship, the stronger it gets. “The cells that fire together, wire together”.
The Brain is not that clever
Designing for micro-actions is important because we experience hundreds of thousands of stimuli daily, and it is impossible for the brain to keep up. Focusing on small changes allows your brain to effectively start the process of neuroplasticity.
Create, Focus and Complete
Your brain is really smart. And lazy. It is constantly trying to save effort by creating habits. Why? Because habits are “pre-programmed” and require less energy. To help create habits, your task is to pick activities that are easy (which a micro-action is, duh!), then focus and repeat.
Action creates more Action
Your actions re-program your brain. When you take action and succeed you get a sense of accomplishment, advancement, and other positive feelings. Your brain starts learning, and it makes you more ready and likely to take the next action, and thus triggers a virtuous circle of even more action.
Hence, taking action:
- Reprograms your brain by building new neuron connections, and
- Triggers more action.
Often, people think of childhood and young adulthood as a time of brain growth—the young person constantly learns new things, embarks on new adventures, shows an inquisitive and explorative spirit. Conversely, older adulthood is often seen as a time of cognitive decline, with people becoming more forgetful, less inclined to seek new experiences, more “set in their ways”.
But what recent research has shown is that under the right circumstances, the power of brain plasticity can help adult minds grow. Although certain brain machinery tends to decline with age, using micro-actions there are steps people can take to tap into plasticity and reinvigorate that machinery.
Neuroplasticity and the Senses
One of the important findings of recent neuroplasticity research is the discovery of how closely our senses are connected to memory and cognition. Because of their interdependence, a weakness in one is often related to—or even the cause of—a weakness in the other. For example, we all know that Alzheimer’s patients slowly lose their memories. One way this manifests is that they eat less food. Why? As it turns out, visual deficits are also a part of Alzheimer’s. People eat less because they can’t see the food as well. Another example is in normal age-related cognitive changes. As we grow older, we get more forgetful and distracted in large part because our brain does not process what we hear, see, and feel as well as it once did. The result is that we can’t store images of our experiences as clearly, and so have trouble using them and recalling them later.
A trigger is something that leads you to automatically doing something else. Smokers, for example, are triggered to smoke after a meal. Use triggers to your advantage. If you commit to always checking your bank balance after breakfast, after a few weeks you’ll automatically think about doing it after your morning meal. Visual triggers work well, too. For example, encourage your audience to leave their bank card next to the bed when they go to bed so they’re reminded of the task they need to do the following morning.
Do it Early
Always do your financial planning in the morning when your willpower is high. You’ll reap the rewards all day!
Make it Convenient
The more difficult and time consuming it is to take an action, the less likely an audience will do it. This is why so many people who buy gym memberships drop out. It’s just not that convenient. Get everything you need ready ahead of time so that when it’s time you can, as Nike says, “Just Do It”.
Make it Fun
If people don’t enjoy doing something they aren’t going to stick with it. Find ways to make the executable lifestyle change as enjoyable as possible.
Don’t Break the Chain
When Jerry Seinfeld was an unknown, he created the habit of writing new material daily using a wall calendar and a red marker. Every day he wrote, he put a big red “X” through that day. He didn’t want to see any blank days that “broke the chain”. Build mechanisms into your interface and user experience for exactly this and you’ll find that after one month a new habit will largely be formed.
Make it a journey not a destination
I’m not a taoist, or any ‘ist’, ‘in’ or ‘ish’ for that matter, but I do include a few of the basic concepts of Taoism in my approach to problem solving, design and taking small actions.
Tao translates to “Way” and that’s the basic idea right there. Taoism is about the journey, focusing on and enjoying what lies in front of you instead of always looking ahead at your destination. That’s a really great guiding principle when you start designing services and products too. Think about the journey you want to send the audience on and the story you want to unfold before them, rather than obsessing over the potential outcome.
Every human brain has 3 basic goals;
- Being Social
- Having Fun
So to conclude, think about the little actions you’re design, how often and how few they are, but also how you categorise them;
Somewhere between the size, the frequency and the type of actions (across the above three categories) is the answer to behavioural change.
By using these steps and these categories to create a habit we can start to trick the audiences brain into creating new neural pathways. Once that habit is formed the audience can use it to serve as a gateway to bigger changes that can truly change behavior.
A journey of a thousand miles really does begin with a single step.