The Power of Habit

My review of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.

… once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom—and the responsibility—to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.

This book breaks down habits into small, understandable pieces—at its simplest a 3-step loop of cue + routine + reward. The narrative style is easy to grasp, in the vein of Malcolm Gladwell and Freakonomics.

habit-book-cover

Wonderfully illustrated with examples of both good and bad habits, from alcoholism and gambling to workplace safety and employee willpower. Duhigg describes willpower, self-discipline, the power of belief as “keystone habits” that can create a structure for widespread change.

The stories and examples explain the central idea of the book: habits can be changed if we understand how they work. In the 3-step loop for a negative habit like overeating, for example, the cue and reward remain the same but the routine changes to a healthier one. And, importantly, small changes—no matter how tiny they may seem—fuel bigger ones.

Habits are powerful, but delicate. They shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.

My biggest takeaway is a motivation to think critically about my own personal habits, as well as the keystone habits and cultural values of my workplace. Raising my awareness is the first step to understanding my habits, and identify which ones I should change.

(Props Matt for the recommendation.)

The Investigative Mindset

Knowing where to look for answers is more important than memorizing a set of requirements or rules.

I have a confession: I often have no idea what I’m doing.

I remember clearly what it felt like my first day at my job: I was new, overwhelmed, and maybe even scared. But the work was exciting, mind-filling, and fun. Now, several years into the role, I still feel this push-and-pull. I’ve learned to juggle these opposing feelings and be both productive and successful at my job.

The key to this—and I believe one of the most important traits for my success—is an investigative mindset. Knowing where to look for answers is more important than memorizing a set of requirements or rules.

Why? Rules and requirements change, and the context I work in is constantly changing. I’m more productive in my work by making good, informed decisions—not by the book. I can work smarter, gaining a new awareness of how everything works.

How? To develop this mindset, I exercise the following:

1. Take initiative on my own first: do the legwork to find the answer. Be tenacious and know where to look.
2. Ask questions, know when to stop looking and ask for help. Not being afraid to be ignorant or wrong.
3. Share my ideas for the better solution.
4. Look to my teammates as a critical force—we learn together.

Often, the investigation takes me out of bounds—out of my “area”—that’s OK, and natural. I talk to other people outside my team, and I learn a bit more about how it all works together. I fill in the gaps in my knowledge. I’ve raised my awareness.

It wasn’t always this clear for me … after only 3 or 4 months into being at Automattic I had a revelation that changed my mindset—put it into words. One day, I ran into a quote one of our internal P2 sites, expressed as a formula or pseudocode.

( intuition + investigation ) > memorization

I said “Yes, Yes, YES!” I was in the privacy of my home office, so no one heard me, of course. It really made sense, though. And it alleviated part of the struggle I was having to completely internalize all the things I was supposed to know and do. All the stats and bots and checklists and dos and donts.

This was later echoed by something UX guru Jared Spool said at An Event Apart:

The mindset of investigation is about informed decisions, not going “by the book.” Dogmatic, rule-based methodologies exist only to enforce things; they avoid critical thinking and good decision making.

I realized if I made good, informed decisions I could solve problems in both normal and edge cases. Instead of a one-time answer, I could build a framework to answer any question. A mentality. The outcome of finding the answer, solving the problem, sharing the solution—rewards this mindset. A loop. Doing it over and over.

This feedback loop is hugely powerful. It gives me confidence to continue to strive for an investigative mind.


Notes

1. A video my colleague Justin Shreve posted echoes this investigative mindset, specifically as it applies to software development: Being a developer is being a problem solver.

2. Thinking about investigation reminded me of my time in the Future Problem Solving (FPS) club in high school. We found creative solutions to mock issues like world hunger or renewable energy. It was fun and challenging, but the best part was the process itself. Investigate, organize, present, debate. Learn. (Random trivia: according to Wikipedia a later team from my school won a state FPS competition. Rock!)

3. One more quote: “Never memorize what you can look up in books.” —Einstein (unsourced)

Travel Tip: Headband

Aside

Something to consider on a long—and possibly international—plane flight.

Instead of a dedicated eye shade that you’ll use rarely other than for a few hours on the plane, use a wool hat or headband to cover your eyes and ears, planes tend to be cold anyway.

And if you have earplugs or earphones in, the headband will help them not fall out while you’re snoozing.

Best support is a conversation

Aside

Lance Willett:

“The best support is a conversation.” So true.

Originally posted on Andrew Spittle:

When you spend all day working with the same piece of software your definition of what is easy for someone else becomes horribly skewed. Since I started jamming with the CoPress gang in 2009, I have spent thousands of hours staring at a WordPress dashboard. It means much of the WordPress interface is easy for me. That’s dangerous.

I try to minimize the number of times I use easy in a support reply. I avoid phrases like “Setting up custom menus is easy…” or “Writing a new post is easy…” There are a few reasons for this.

First, if a feature or product were legitimately easy the user would not be writing in to support about how stuck they are. Sure, some percentage of users will find questions to ask about any interface. But do you want to start the conversation by assuming the user falls into that percentage? You…

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Family Scrapbook and Rolomeal

This isn’t my typical post on business, web design, or technology. Instead, I decided to put two of my product ideas up for cool web applications that I’ve been tossing around for a few months. I might pursue them someday, but I thought, “Why not share these in case someone else can take them and run with them?”

Family Scrapbook

View and share your family stories, photos, and memories.

This product would tie in photos, stories, and events to create a virtual scrapbook. Think of a private version of Facebook where only your family is involved. Ideally it would be web-based so that sharing and managing the data could happen at any time from various locations.

The application would include historical pages that have scrapbook-like collections of photos and stories. To improve from the typical photo gallery where you simply view photos, Family Scrapbook would focus on a design where the photos and stories could be visually linked, just like a real scrapbook.

As a bonus, the Family Scrapbook could tie into a third-party family tree software to include (or pre-populate) important names, dates, and events. As a result the bulk of the family history would be quickly started and you could concentrate on filling in the details.

This idea came about after I tried to set something up with Flickr to get my family to share photos. My wife took on the task of digitizing and organizing all the family’s photos, and she needed help with dates and identifying certain people. After we started the project we realized that we also wanted to record the stories, memories, and special connections that the pictures represented to family members.

To get the project going we set up my family with Flickr accounts, scanned and uploaded a ton of photos, and sent everyone instructions on how to participate. We received comments that helped with organization and identification, but the sharing and memories part of it never got of the ground as an online project. The encouragement to write a story, upload photos and mementos, and tie in the entire family history just wasn’t there with the Flickr setup.

With something like Family Scrapbook, however, I think it could make this activity be fun and rewarding for the people who put effort into it. It would bring families together—especially if they live long distances from each other—while creating a visually engaging archive of the family history.

Rolomeal

Keep track of your meals.

This product seeks to answer two questions: “What should I have for dinner” and “What did I have for dinner?” It would include two basic items: (1) a meal index and (2) a recipe index.

The purpose of the meal index portion is to be able to easily track the food you eat1. You would enter details for each meal: date, title and brief description, link to recipe(s), and list of needed ingredients. Then you’d use the application to browse your meal history and get ideas for what to make again, or as a historical reporting tool to help you remember details of previous meals.

A key feature is the simple input for new entries; for example, you’d want to allow just the bare minimum of a title like “Macaroni and Cheese” without all the rest. If the entry is too complicated the product won’t be used much, I’d imagine… You could also have different settings for restaurant meals versus meals eaten at home.

The recipe area would go along with the meal index, both as a reference and as a starting point for inspiration. It could be built into the same product or accept recipes from other existing desktop or web applications. The recipes would be attached to meals so that when you are inspired by a meal (as seen while browsing your history) you could quickly find the recipe and ingredients needed to make it.

This product could be expanded to a social application in order to share ideas for meals (via a Facebook app, e.g.). Things like “See what your friends are having for dinner” or “View the top-rated meals including chicken in your community/group” come to mind. As a web application this type of sharing would be easier than with a traditional desktop program.

The idea for this application first came to me one night when—like we do often—my wife and I discussed what we should have for dinner. “When did we last have Beef Stroganoff?” “Have we had chicken yet this week?” These questions would be easy to answer with Rolomeal.

Bonus features: allow people to request random entries from the meal index for quick inspiration, similar to the “I’m feeling lucky” button on Google. You could have this “Surprise me!” feature for recipes, too. You might also track statistics to see your eating habits. But, I see it as being geared towards an inspirational meal idea tool rather than a nutritional or weight-loss tool.

Other possible names: MealDex or ChowDex.

There’s an app for that!

If anyone knows of existing web applications that already are similar in purpose, please leave a comment below with the details.

1 In discussing this idea today with my wife, she reminded me that what she really wanted is a way to see if she’s made her favorite meals recently. She wouldn’t want to keep track of all meals, just the memorable ones. When it comes time to decide on a meal, she could then see all the favorites and pick one that hasn’t been made in a while.

You Can't Win

If you are passionate about a cause, preach it loudly and clearly, and see it as the best way to do things, you are labeled a zealot.

If you keep your head down and stay out of the shouting matches, often ignoring them simply because you don’t have the time or energy, you are labeled as complacent.

The middle ground, if there is one, is to be pragmatic. Embrace standards and strive to meet them as much as possible, but know when to give in and just get the job done. Or better yet, build something the right way, and lead by example.

I’m ashamed it’s taken me all these years to come to this realization, but hey—better late than never.

You Are What You Make

I’ve always done kind of weird, strange things, and that’s what I get hired to do: weird, strange things. The type of work you make is the type of work people will hire you to do.

Joshua Davis inspires me, not because he is a world-class Flash artist that creates complex, 120,000-layer files in Illustrator in five minutes1, but because he isn’t afraid to be himself. In fact he’s been extremely successful at creating art and websites that are as individual as he is.

One of my goals for 2009 is to find a balance in my work as a web designer/developer with what I find important and valuable in life. If I produce work that isn’t fulfilling, or if I feel like I’m not working towards doing stuff that matters, it isn’t because I’m doomed to serve a particular client or style—but because of the fact that what I’ve done is what people hire me for.

Maybe it’s time to make something a little bit different?

1 Read about Joshua’s work at Apple Pro Profiles: Joshua Davis.