The first principle of behavior design

When I was a freshman in college, I wanted to get big—muscular. I met a fellow classmate of mine, a burly guy named Tommy, who did a bit of bodybuilding in high school. He was the real deal: the shelves in his dorm-room were stacked high with protein powder, and his shirts barely fit due to the various muscles that popped out. He was my fitness role model.

And so I started to go to the gym with him and learn the ropes. He taught me how to do dumbbell bench presses, squats, overhead presses, and more.

Due to our schedules, I couldn’t join him all that often; maybe once or twice a week. But I was pretty good at going on my own.

The morning after each workout, I’d go into the bathroom in my dorm and see whether I had grown.

Yes, I was that naïve.

After a few weeks of being disappointed with the changes I saw, I stopped going to the gym.

In hindsight, I can’t believe how silly I was.

First of all, it’s hard for each of us to notice the small changes that we accrue day after day. This is why we’re often surprised when someone we haven’t seen in awhile tells us how great (or thin) we look. The contrast is much greater for them.

Second, I was approaching the problem the wrong way. My focus was on the outcome I wanted, not on the process itself. I was focusing on my goals, not the behaviors I wanted to make a habitual part of my life.

That’s the problem I see with almost every behavior-change program out there. They all focus on getting the desired outcome, instead of on solidifying the right behaviors.

When we’re in an outcome focused mindset, it’s easy to be impatient. We don’t see the results we want, and so we get nervous and shift our strategy. While the situation may sometimes call for a change in our approach, it often just calls for more sustained work and patience. 

I wrote about this with Kristen Berman and Dan Ariely in our book, Hacking Human Nature for Good. We talk about defining the “key behaviors” that you want to design for. It’s the first step we have people take when they want to start the behavior design process.

And I’ll call this my first principle of behavior design: Focus on finding and doing the right behavior, not the outcome.

Jason Hreha