Keys in the Refrigerator? A Shortcut to Behavior Modification

Many of our most important problems could be solved if we had greater capacity to change our own behaviour.

Did you catch that?

Many of our most IMPORTANT PROBLEMS could be SOLVED if we had greater capacity to CHANGE OUR OWN BEHAVIOUR.

That simple statement has incredibly powerful implications. Solving an important problem doesn’t necessarily require more technology, innovation, or manpower — it requires behaviour modification.

It’s a simple concept, but we all know changing our behaviour isn’t easy. If it was easy, then everyone we know would be in peak physical condition. They’d only eat the healthiest foods, work out three times a week, and get eight hours of sleep every night. At work, they’d perform at the highest levels. They’d stay focused and always meet expectations. They’d be responsible, compassionate, and friendly.

The problem is, changing our own behaviour is usually complicated and confusing. We often lack the motivation to break bad habits and start new, healthy patterns. Or, we lack the skills, ability, and surrounding support to make the lasting changes we need to succeed.

The truth is, even though changing our own behaviour is difficult, we know it’s possible. Right now, we’ll look at one of the key principles to making a personal behaviour change that lasts.

Become The Scientist and The Subject

This is an actual internal email that was sent to everyone in our office.

Hey, everyone. A set of keys was found in the downstairs refrigerator. If they’re yours, come find Becky.

Here are a few responses from my coworkers:

“Can you please tell us whoever claims them so we can make fun of them. Thanks!”

“If you keep them in the freezer they last longer — just saying.”

“It’s not me. I only keep my keys in the second and third-floor refrigerators.”

Everyone had a good laugh at the witty responses. Finally, we saw a reply from one of our master trainers, Emily.

“They are mine. I put my keys with my leftover lunch so I won’t forget to take it home with me at the end of the day.”

That’s an interesting strategy, eh? Well, it turns out that it works!

Emily had a behaviour that needed to change — she kept forgetting her leftovers in the refrigerator at work. She knew that about herself, so she decided to change it.

She knew she’s likely to forget to take home her leftovers, and she knew she couldn’t drive home without her keys. So she tricked herself by putting her keys in the refrigerator with her leftover food. After running this experiment on herself, she realised it worked.

She became the scientist and the subject and she changed her own behaviour.

Overcome Your Tendencies

Dan Ariely, a brilliant behavioural economist and professor at Duke University, famously expanded the scientist/subject approach to his undergraduate students one semester. Here’s how described it on his blog:

As they settled into their chairs that first morning, I explained to them that they would have to submit three main papers over the 12-week semester and that these three papers would constitute a large part of their final grade. “And what are the deadlines?” asked one student. I smiled. “The deadlines are entirely up to you and you can hand in the papers any time before the end of the semester,” I replied. “But, by the end of this week, you must commit to a deadline for each paper. Once you set your deadlines, they can’t be changed. Late papers,” I added, “would be penalized at the rate of one percent off the grade for each day late.”

“But Professor Ariely,” asked another student, “given these instructions wouldn’t it make sense for us to select the last date possible?” “That’s an option,” I replied. “If you find that it makes sense, by all means do it.”

Now a perfectly rational student would set all the deadlines for the last day of class—after all, they could submit papers early, so why take a chance and select an earlier deadline than absolutely necessary? From this perspective, delaying the deadlines to the last day of the semester was clearly the best decision. But what if the students succumbed to temptation and procrastination? What if they knew that they are likely to fail? If the students were not rational and knew it, then they might set early deadlines and by doing so force themselves to start working on the projects earlier in the semester.

You would most likely predict that the students would succumb to procrastination (not a big surprise there)—but would they understand their own limitations and would they commit to earlier deadlines just to overcome their procrastination?

Interestingly, we found that the majority of students committed to earlier deadlines, and that this ability to commit resulted in higher grades. 1*

Fascinating, right?

I remember watching an interview with Bob Dylan, arguably one of the greatest songwriters and performers of all time. The interviewer asked him, “Bob, what does it take for you to write one of those wonderful songs?”

He thought about it for a second, cleared his throat, and dryly said, “A deadline from my publisher.”

The interviewer looked confused, so Bob continued, “Yeah, man. If I go down to the beach with my guitar to write a song, I fall asleep. But if I have a deadline, I sit down and finish it.”

Dan Ariely’s students (and Bob Dylan) knew they had a tendency to procrastinate. This was the behaviour they needed to change. Ariely gave his students a tool — accountability through self-imposed deadlines — that allowed them to become the scientists and the subjects. When they committed to the earlier deadlines, they were able to change their behaviour and get the result they were after.

I’d like to challenge you to identify one simple behaviour you’d like to change over the next three days. Get creative and ask yourself how you can become the scientist and the subject to modify that behaviour for the better.

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