Scaffolding

I want to talk a bit more about some meta-topics before we get to the experiments. Again, these are “best practices” that I’m trying to engage in.

Lately I’ve been working with something that I call “scaffolding”: shaping the environment so that doing the right thing is easier, if not automatic.

What is scaffolding? Let’s take a simple example: your boss expects you to be at work at 8 am, but you typically sleep longer than that. How do you solve this problem? You could try other methods, but the simplest solution is to set an alarm. You manipulate your environment (the alarm) to change your behavior (waking up in time to get to work). The environment becomes an extension of your personal intentions. So scaffolding is consciously designing your environment to reinforce your desired behaviors. The question is, “how?”.

One easy way is to use the 20-second technique, described in detail here: Make behavior that you want to engage in 20 seconds easier, make behavior you want to quit 20 seconds harder.  Some ways that I’ve used this:

  1. too much time playing video games in between my writing sprints, so I have used a notebook instead of working directly on the computer that has all the games installed.
  2. trouble with unneeded web surfing. I’ve tried unplugging or turning on airplane mode. An extra 20 seconds can make it just harder enough to say to myself, “Do I really want to websurf right now or am I just having a knee jerk reaction to the stimulus of sitting in front of my computer?”
  3. trouble with looking at youtube: turn my phone off at night and leave it off in the mornings.

In general: reducing or eliminating unnecessary stimulus is critical to being able to focus. Simply turning my phone off may be the best productivity trick I know.

The flip side of the 20 second technique is to make it 20 seconds easier to do the behavior you want to do.

  1. You want to eat more fruits and vegetables? Prepare some carrot sticks and put them in an easy-to-reach place in the fridge. Put fruit out on the counter in a bowl. At the same time, put the cookies another 20 seconds away, buried in a closet. Better yet, don’t buy them at all.
  2. You want to run more often? Put your workout clothes out where you’ll stumble on them at the time you want to work out: if you work out in the morning, you can put them right next to your bed. If you work out after work, put them where you’ll stumble on them when you come home from work. This is what I call “lowering the activation cost”.

Sometimes you need even more scaffolding than the 20-second rule can provide. In the past, I’ve built a home gym to overcome excuses to work out. I’ve reduced distractions by working in a simplified computer environment. I’ve kept junk food completely out of the house so that if I want something that I know isn’t on my diet, I have to get in the car and go to the store or the fast food joint for it. It’s a way of outsourcing some of your willpower to the outside environment rather than trying to control yourself constantly. Another way of looking at this is to think that it’s a way to bridge the gap of your intentions: “I really should lose some weight” and your current state: “Those cookies look great. I can start losing weight tomorrow.”

Another example of scaffolding is buying good tools: this is an investment of enjoyment. If you want to prepare more of your meals at home, think about buying better knives and pans. Get some workout clothes you like. Play some music you like (temptation bundling) and so on.

Don’t forget to replicate your success: if something works well for you in one situation, try it in others. If listening to good music helps you work out, try using it to help you clean. See what happens if you put some music on while you work. Find and replicate the stuff that works for you throughout multiple environments.

You can even ask yourself, “what would this idea look like if I turned it up to ten?” For example, recently I’ve been using a variant of the Pomodoro technique to get things done. What would it look like if I used the Pomodoro technique everywhere, all the time?

On the other hand, if something doesn’t work for you in one scenario, try eliminating it elsewhere. If you find the TV distracting while you study, try cutting it out while you eat. You may be eating more than you intend because you’re distracted. Or maybe you’re not paying good attention to your friends and family. 

That’s the action experiments way, really: try something new, see how it works, see what the limitations are. If it works, keep doing it, and if it doesn’t, try something else.

Perhaps you think the idea of scaffolding is silly. How can having good knives make you want to cook? Imagine the opposite scenario: If your kitchen is filthy and filled with junk food (or nothing) how eager will you be to cook a healthy meal? If you are trying to write code in a room filled with jackhammer noises, how much work will you actually get done? Scaffolding applies to your workout space (even if it’s just a yoga mat on the floor) your sleeping area, your workspace, your kitchen, and potentially everywhere else. Thinking through what behaviors you want and building scaffolding can make a big difference. Setting up good systems in your house, at work, and in your car can help create the kinds of behavior you want. Borrow the wisdom of this reddit poster and pave the way for the future you to make good decisions.

 

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