Life Hacking with Behavioral Science

Guest post by Francisco Gomez

AppWallMany of us are in the deliberate search for better, easier, faster, more effective ways of getting things done.  We look for optimization in all sorts of pursuits; fitness, cooking, business travel, finances, technology, and so on.   The explosive business of Apps is, in great part, driven by our desire to optimize how we manage our lives. Some might say we are in search of the best and greatest “life hack.” What is a life hack, you ask?  Wikipedia provides this succinct summary:

Life hacking refers to any productivity trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method to increase productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life; in other words, anything that solves an everyday problem of a person in a clever or non-obvious way….Coined in the 1980s in hacker culture, the term became popularized in the blogosphere and is primarily used by computer experts who suffer from information overload or those with a playful curiosity in the ways they can accelerate their workflow in ways other than programming.*

If you explore the term “life hacking” on the internet, you will find that it covers a lot of ground. There are blogs, e-books, articles and entire websites dedicated to life hacking.  Not surprisingly, these sources vary a great deal in content and quality.  From them, you might gather information ranging from the fastest way to peel a banana (it models what chimpanzees do, in case you’re wondering) to tips on boosting your confidence and learning foreign languages at maximum speeds. You can learn how to decrease your anxiety, get the most out of meditation and make Barista quality coffee from your own home.  And, as is generally the case with online sources, it’s a buyer beware world.  Some of them are important behavioral practices that can genuinely enhance our lives, and others will make you wish you’d invested your time elsewhere.

Like most, I have interests in maximizing performance for personal reasons but it is also an important aspect of my career as a behavior-based business consultant.  One of my favorite aspects of the job is helping the best organizations get even better. Rarely do our clients call us to fix something “broken.” Certainly, behavioral science is a powerful and proven approach to mitigating problem behavior at the individual and organizational level. However, it is also an optimization mechanism, capable of producing the highest levels of creativity, quality, productivity and efficiency in what might already be high performance. It gives you the framework to target and systematically improve behaviors that are significant to you.  So, when it comes to managing the behavior of self and others, even just a basic understanding of behavioral science can be the ultimate life hack.  An understanding of a few core principles from behavioral science will help you separate the wheat from the chaff in the jumble of life hacks and personal improvement strategies out there while giving you the tools to build your own for your many ventures.

The behavioral science tools and principles that can help you increase your productivity, creativity and expedite learning and fluency are many.  The creative and effective use of reinforcement alone is one of the most powerful life hacks I can think of.  To assess or develop your own behavior-influencing life hacks, consider this starter set of tools and concepts:

  • Shaping: This might be the most obvious source for a life hack and it is one of the most powerful and efficient ways to learn. Adopting a new skill-especially a complex one such as learning a new language- can have its share of frustrations. We might feel like achieving fluency is distant and the road there too difficult. Often we give up on our goal because it took too much effort to reach the target. This is where shaping comes in. It’s defined by breaking down a skill into achievable and reinforceable baby steps and systematically teaching (or learning) each one. This allows the learner to progress and build a solid foundation on the skill. It also allows them to contact plenty of reinforcement along the way which keeps them fully engaged and motivated to learn. You want your employees to use that complicated new accounting software? Learn how to separate and reinforce those baby steps and shape their behavior. You want to learn how to play an instrument? Learn how to shape your own behavior.
  • Behavioral Cusps: These consist of identifying behaviors or skill sets that once learned will accelerate exponential growth into completely different learning areas. One good example of a cusp might be learning how to read. Once that skill is acquired, a person’s ability to develop in other diverse areas grows exponentially. Now they can read and learn about history, natural science, current events, etc… I see this as a particularly powerful and efficient way to help a new employee transition into their role; identify and then teach the most critical skills that once learned, will expedite growth in other areas that are important to their function. In essence, you could map out and lead them from one cusp to another- expanding the branches of their learning tree and truly maximizing the value they bring to themselves and your organization.
  • PIC/NIC Analysis®: This proprietary troubleshooting tool can help you figure out why people make certain choices. It’s a great way to get into somebody else’s shoes and figure out what variables might be motivating them. If your objective is to change behavior, it’s important to know with precision what the influencing variables are that you need to change.
  • Minimizing Response Cost: This is all about strategically decreasing the amount of effort for the desired behavior to occur. If you want the performer to engage in a certain behavior, it’s much more effective to decrease the amount of effort they need to invest in doing what you want them to do.   Although easily derived from behavioral literature, I first learned this hack from reading Ernest Hemingway’s tips on avoiding writer’s block (and yes…I used his tip to write this blog).  To quote him directly; 

“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck.”

Hemingway decreased the amount of effort for getting into the flow of writing by always leaving a partially full page to begin with the next day. Although I use this for my writing, an understanding of behavior has helped me generalize this approach to several other tasks. For example, I get my workout clothes and equipment sorted, next to my bed and ready to put on for those much too early 5:30am workouts. If I need to get up and start a search for my workout clothes, fitness tracker and water bottle, I may end up slapping that snooze button instead. That additional effort might be too much to sustain the desired behavior. The point is to never start on a blank page. Set yourself up with a head start and increase the likelihood you will engage in the desired behavior.

Think of behavioral interventions (including life hacks) as recipes for improvement. Behavioral principles are the ingredients that will produce the optimization you are looking for in your own as well as other people’s behavior. A solid understanding of a few behavioral principles will give you the ingredients to build your own recipes for behavior change. These days it’s easy to be overwhelmed with the limitless amount of information pitching us different approaches to improving our physical and mental health, relationships, and management styles, to name a few.  It’s a challenge to choose the most effective method in the face of so many options. Before we undergo medical treatment most of us expect for the methodology to have been tested through the rigor of the scientific method.  The above tools and concepts are derived from the systematic study and application of behavioral principles supported by over a century of research. When investing in a life hack intended to influence your behavior and that of others, why wouldn’t you rely on scientifically proven tools and principles to lead your way?

You may also want to check out The 46 Most Brilliant Life Hacks Every Human Being Needs to Make Life Easier.

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  1. What’s interesting is with all the buzz around life hacks, growth hacks, etc., that more people are not more curious specifically about behavior hacks. I believe your post is one of the few out there that talks about hacking for personal improvement by understanding our behavior.

    I think learning and acting on these types of hacks based on behavioral principles are themselves a behavioral cusp, because they are giving the tools that can be applied in so many different ways. Great post.

  2. I appreciate the feedback, James. I’m similarly surprised about the lack of overt reference to behavioral science in life hack sites. Having said that, I have run into several life hacks that are very clear examples of behavioral tools at work.
    I really like the connection to cusps that you’re making. An understanding of behavior is without a doubt one of the most impactful cusps in my repertoire.

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