Bringing the background into the foreground

​Bringing the background into the foreground

When was the last time you looked at the sky?

I mean it. When was the last time you REALLY looked?

For me, it was this morning. My apartment sits on a lovely hill here in San Francisco, and so I spend about 15 minutes staring out at the Bay and its cloud-ridden neighbor each AM.

It’s amazing what you can learn from this simple practice.

A simple glance at the clouds allows me to predict whether the streets below will be filled with a bunch of happy people, or a few huddled, umbrella-wielding figurines.

I can also predict whether or not my daily Uber will cost 8 bucks or 16 bucks. After all, cold and wet streets are quite good at repelling walkers.

All this based on a quick glance at the background–the sky.

In many ways, the art of changing behavior is the art of background-watchin’ and tinkerin’.

We all go through the world with our own unique abilities, likes, and dislikes.

Behavior is what happens when those things match up with the world around us.

In one context, those abilities, likes, and dislikes will cause you to do one thing… in another, those same abilities, likes, and dislikes will cause you to do another thing… and so on.

So, to predict and modify behavior, you have to understand two things:

1. The nature of the people you’re trying to influence

2. The nature of the environment in which those people are operating

Some environments make certain behaviors really hard. Some environments make certain behaviors really easy.

Some environments allow people to do things they love. Others? Not so much.

But most of this information is in the background, in the things that we take for granted. Think back to the last time you were at your local coffeeshop. Did you spend most of your time looking at the seating arrangement and thinking about how it modified the behavior of the people there?

Did you look at the shape of the room and think about how the location of the door was causing people to drift through the space?

Or did you just people-watch for awhile?

Probably the latter. It’s natural for us to only pay attention to dynamic, interesting *things* (like people), not unchanging, semi-boring stuff (like walls, doors, etc.).

But in the world of behavior change, this is a grave mistake.

You need to pay attention to the *people* and the *place*. You need to think about how the environment brings forth behavior.

Which is why you should get into the practice of watching the sky for a few minutes each day: There are few better (and more relaxing) habits.

Until tomorrow,


PS: Recently, I decided to create a Facebook group so that I can share short insights on habit formation and behavior-change with you each day. It’s been terrific so far.

If you want to learn as much as you can about creating better products (using psychology), personality science, habit formation, and more, you might want to check it out: