Focus on inattention and inertia to initiate action

by | Feb 22, 2016 | Blog | 0 comments

Our brains are hardwired for inattention and inertia.

Once you accept that, it’s easier to understand why we resist change, such as the new procurement system, the new terminology for the business units, the new benefit call center, and just about anything else that’s being introduced this quarter or whenever.

From an evolutionary perspective, our brains are still stuck in an environment that no longer exists.

Our unconscious is constantly scanning for potential threats and encouraging our bodies to preserve energy, just in case we need to run from a lion, tiger or bear, oh my. (We also often find threats in how others treat us, especially authority figures, but that’s another story.)

That’s why when you want people to act in what should be their best interest—saving time, money or other resources─you need to be empathetic.

The road to good intentions is paved with hell. It’s hard to overcome our inattention and inertia to initiate action.

The new book The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions Into Positive Results by Bob Nease, the former chief scientist of Express Scripts, explains how to address these roadblocks.

The “fifty bits” refers to the brain’s bandwidth limitations for conscious thoughts. Each second, the brain processes about 10 million bits of information. However, the pre-frontal cortex (also called the executive function), which directs our conscious thinking and acting, can only process about 50 bits per second of these 10 million bits. The other 99.99995 percent of our bandwidth is allocated to our unconsciousness.

This limitation is largely responsible for the gap between what you want to do─if you can pay attention long enough─and what you actually do.

As Nease describes it, “fifty bits design” is a type of behavior design that starts with what the designer wants from the user.

Fifty bits design is similar yet different to the work of Dr. BJ Fogg, who’s considered the father of behavior design. (Full disclosure: I’ve studied with BJ and am one of his certified Tiny Habits® coaches.)

Like BJ though, Nease believes behavior design should be used for good.

Basically, you’re trying to help people do things they already want to do. But because people may not be fully aware of their needs and interests, the behavior designer steps in to provide carefully constructed nudges, which is different from user-centered design.

“Fifty bits design assumes the best about people.…There are no tricks or secrets, just a deep-rooted believe that most people want to do the right thing and they need a bit of help acting on those good intentions,” writes author Bob Nease.

The book presents a clear, compelling case for the value of behavior design, especially within organizations where people have a horrendous time focusing, due to heavy workloads, round-the-clock connectivity, continuous partial attention and even worse, multi-tasking. As a result, employees often spend time completing activities, rather than concentrating on top priorities and solving big problems.

Nease serves as a great role model for behavior design as a science, especially by introducing the neuroscience component as well as his seven fifty bits design strategies. He also features relevant case studies primarily from Express Scripts in his easy-to-read and understand book.

And from a behavior designer’s point of view, Nease is wise to emphasize that somebody has to do the work; better behavior design does not eliminate the tasks. They’re just redistributed in a different way that helps the users get on the right path.

For example, to get people to do something new at work, you’ll generally improve your chances if you provide them with an experience that’s as “simple, social and fun” as possible, as I’ve learned from BJ.

When something is “simple, social and fun,” individuals are more likely first to pay attention and then to follow through.

If they perceive your “ask” to get them to “act” as too hard, boring or disruptive to their routine, they’ll ignore you or drag their feet. Yes, that’s inertia at work.

Throughout the book, I kept hoping that Nease was going to acknowledge BJ Fogg and his work, especially since both studied at Stanford, and BJ has his Persuasive Technology Lab based there. But no.

Nonetheless, considering how few books are available on behavior design, this is a useful book for helping individuals take advantage of their latent good intentions.

Are you ready for to put those good intentions into gear?


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