An extract from the book Going Ape S#!t sharing simple strategies for creating new habits that will stick. 

Creating new habits

In any situation in life you always have three options. Change it, accept it, or leave it. – Naval Ravikan

Whether it be creating new habits for yourself or trying to help others create new habits, the rules generally seem to stay the same. It is, after all, just human behaviour. Let’s go back to some of my health nudges to see how I’ve used them specifically to form habits, in particular, going for a regular run.

In my senior years at school I was an avid runner, rising at 5.30am most days full of energy and busting out a tidy 10km jog before breakfast. However, as time passed, I became more of a night owl, and got married and had two kids. The warmth of my bed became very alluring and my passion for running subsided considerably. In my mid-thirties, I looked in the mirror one day and disliked the way I had let things go. It was time for a change. Time to get back into running.

I’m not sure if being a long distance runner in high school helped me or not. I have vivid memories of being able to tackle hills with pace, glide past other runners on a downhill stretch, and have the time to take in the beauty of my surroundings as I ran. I was super motivated and excited to get back into shape. I bought new running shoes, downloaded an app for my phone, got my running music playlist sorted. I was on my way! That was, of course, until I actually started running.

I remember being about 100 metres out of my driveway at Rochedale South and I was completely shattered. Every bone in my body was screaming at me, “Why would you do this?! Stop! For the love of God, stop!”

But I pushed on. I think it took me almost 30 minutes to get around the 2km block in a running/stumbling/crawling fashion. I must have resembled someone who’d been walking in the desert for days as I burst through the front door, desperate for a drink of water and a rest. The super light long distance runner of my school years had well and truly disappeared. They were just memories, taunting me about how far I’d regressed. This was not going to be an easy habit to pick up again. My Ape and my body were most displeased.

After a few days’ recovery, and groaning whenever I had to get up to do anything, I decided to give it another go. But today turned into tomorrow, and before I knew it, a month had gone past and I had only run once. I needed a plan.

I knew that if I didn’t run first thing in the morning, I was unlikely to get out on the road at all when I was mentally exhausted from a day in the studio. So the first thing I did was just to set my alarm for 5.30… and get up. But that didn’t quite work. As my alarm went off, I found that if there was any excuse not to get up, I wouldn’t. If I didn’t know where my running clothes were, if my toenails felt too long, if the night before was too big, if my phone wasn’t charged… literally, the smallest hesitation seemed to keep me tucked up in bed.

So (like I briefly mentioned in chapter 5) the night before, I would go to sleep in my running shorts, make sure my phone was on the charge and lay out all my running attire right next to the bed so all I had to do was roll out and I was on the road. I also stuck a calendar in the kitchen and put a big X through every day that I did exercise, with a big note next to it that said, ‘Four days every week’.

That seemed to work better but I was still missing that extra push that I needed to put my body through the agony of an early morning run. So I thought, “I’m recording an album at the moment with some guys who also like running. Why don’t we make it a competition?” So we did. For the next two months, as we were recording the album, we’d track who’d gone out for a run that morning and who’d decided to be a lazy so-and-so. This finally worked. After that album had finished, I was back in the habit of going for a run at 5.30am every day. In fact, the days I didn’t go for a run, I felt annoyed. My Ape was actually agitating for me to go for a run, rather than screaming for me to stop. Running had become a habit.

I love to tell this story when talking about habit-making, because it has the four main elements to motivating people to change behaviour and create habitual patterns.

1.       Create simple rules.

2.       Reduce resistance.

3.       Keep it front of mind.

4.       Share it.

Let’s unpack each of these.

Simple rules

Creating simple rules is really important because the simpler something is, the more likely your Ape will come along for the ride. In my exercise example, my rule was to get up at 5:30 every morning to go for a run. It was a simple rule and it worked for me. I didn’t have to think about it, and it was easy, memorable and practical. Other simple rules might be look before you cross the road, never pick up hot coals, leave work at 5:30 every day, or never eat yellow snow. All are rules we don’t have to think about that help us through life. They make life simpler and our Apes love simple.

There is a great book called Simple rules: How to thrive in a complex world by Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt. In it, the authors lead a fascinating dive into the world of simple rules, and land on six types of rules: three that help to determine what to do, and three that determine how to do something. Below is my take on the types of rules they outline.

First, the rules for what to do:

Boundary rules

These are rules which have a yes or no answer. They can be values-driven but are often much more simplistic. For instance, never go swimming in an electrical storm, or never be the first, or last, to leave a party, or, if shares drop by X per cent in one day, then sell.

Stopping rules

As the title suggests, these are rules to help your Ape stop something. This helps buffer status quo bias and the tendency toward instant gratification. For instance, stop eating after 7pm, only have one glass of wine a night or don’t buy drinks after 10pm.

Prioritisation rules

This is simply putting things into a hierarchy so you can determine which activity trumps another in importance. For example: When the budget is tight, look to reduce spending before selling assets like shares. Or a classic: If your oxygen mask falls from the ceiling, put it on yourself before helping your children or others. Or: My partner comes first, then my children, then my colleagues. These are simple rules that help you to prioritise when conflicts arise.

Now, the rules for how to do something:

Coordination rules

These are rules that help us to navigate the complexity of human interactions. For instance, don’t call others after 9pm unless it’s an emergency. At work: Always text team members back within the hour, and answer all ideas with ‘yes, and…’ instead of ‘no, but…’.

How-to rules

These are guardrails that help to direct our focus without being so restrictive they suppress creativity. For instance, a rule of never writing more than 300 words in a blog guardrails the activity without dictating what you should say.

Timing rules

When you do something can be just as important as what you do. I personally like a rule of choosing one thing I’m procrastinating on and do it first up in the morning. Or, in my exercise story, get up at 5.30am and go for a run.

I like looking at these types of simple rules because they prompt me to think about areas of my life where I can reduce complexity by setting up some simple rules. If we’re aiming for a goal, or helping others aim for a goal, creating some simple rules or guardrails can really help the process.

In the theatre we had lots of simple rules that helped us to get a show on the road and make fast decisions. Putting limits on budgets, clearly defining roles and responsibilities, agreeing on ways of working, and even making rules on overall style were ways we implemented simple rules to improve decision-making. Often before we started creating a show in the theatre, the lighting designer, director and I would get together and agree on a colour and sound palette we knew would work together and suited the tone of the show. This was a set of simple rules that would help us in our creative decisions in an extremely complex environment.

Simple rules by themselves aren’t always enough to change behaviour in the long term and create new habits. This is why New Year’s resolutions don’t often last. We make new rules and commitments that are too easy to violate or relax. After a very short period of time,  our Ape goes back to what it was doing before and the resolution isn’t any more than the punchline to a joke at next year’s Christmas party. Once you have some simple rules in place to guide the new behaviour, you must reduce resistance, or the friction, required to do the new behaviour.

Reduce resistance

In my running story, the way I reduced resistance was to wear my running shorts to bed, and lay out my socks, shirt, earphones and shoes on the floor next to my bed. This meant I reduced the time spent in the cold morning air between getting out of my warm bed and my body heating up on my run. I was able to be out on the road running about two minutes after rolling out of bed. The night before, I also made sure there was nothing that could introduce resistance in the morning. I made sure my toenails were short, that the dog food I would have to put out was made, that the spare door key was in my key pocket. I reduced as much of the friction as possible between the alarm going off and me taking the first step of my run.

The power that reducing resistance has should never be underestimated.

Another good example of this comes from renowned behavioural economist, Dan Ariely. The story goes that Dan received a letter from a group of pharmacists one day, who were upset that one of the behavioural economic principles, ‘the allure of free’, didn’t seem to work. The allure of free is simply the observation that if you want someone to try something new, free is better than cheap. You can discount a new energy drink to 50c and you’ll get a few more people buying it, but if you offer it for free, then everyone grabs a can.

The pharmacists protested they’d tried to get patients who had long-term health conditions and who get their medications delivered to them to switch to generic drugs, which were about one-third of the price of the branded ones. Sounds perfect, right? Why wouldn’t someone who is on long-term medication, and often a low income, take up an offer to slash their medical expenses by a third? But people don’t—most still buy the more expensive brands. The pharmacists, after hearing about the allure of free, decided to do a mail-out saying that, if people signed a consent form and sent it back, they’d get their medicine free for a year. Free for a year! Now, to the rational side of any human, this sounds like a deal that’s too good to be true. But not to your Ape, apparently. After months of sending out letters, hardly anyone had taken up the offer. It was at this point of frustration the pharmacists penned their curt letter to Dan.

Dan responded to the group with an observation this might actually be a problem of friction. The letters of the new amazing offer were sent to patients, who then had two options. They could either read the letter, make a choice, sign their consent and then post it snail mail back to the pharmacists, or they could just keep going like they are doing now. The ease of keeping the status quo was just too strong. Dan suggested, despite the new offer being amazing, they may have to solve this problem of resistance to see any impact.


Knowing that changing it to an opt-out (do nothing and we’ll make a change on your behalf) was illegal, the pharmacists created a forced choice junction. They sent letters to patients alerting them that, if they didn’t send the letter back, their medication would stop being sent out. On returning the letter, they could choose whether to go for the generic meds for free or the much more expensive brand. They hadn’t lowered the resistance of change, they’d just made the friction equal between either choice and created a kind of choice T-intersection. With this new offer, the vast majority of patients chose the new offer. This is the power of resistance and it should never be underestimated when attempting to change behaviour.

Keep it front of mind

Salience (/’seilienns/) – noun

The quality of being particularly noticeable or important; prominence. The state or quality by which it stands out from its neighbours.

Salience, or doing things that help something stand out from the crowd, is a principle marketers and sales people have known for millennia. If you want people to buy or do something new you have to get, and keep, their attention. You need to be front of mind when they think of something. As a consultant, whenever clients have a problem they need help solving, my name is the one I want to pop into their mind. To this end, I keep doing things on social media and catching up for coffee, just to keep myself front of mind, to increase my salience.

The same goes for remembering and being motivated to repeat an action over and over again until it becomes embedded as an unconscious habit. You need to keep the why and your progress front of mind. Grab and keep your attention focused on what you want to do and you have won half the battle. This is why so much money is poured into branding and packaging. As you walk down the aisle and you pick up something you wouldn’t normally buy, what made you pick it up in the first place? Something had to grab your attention—it had to have high salience. The more interesting or novel it is, the more likely it is to keep your attention so you buy it.

Good examples of increasing salience in influence behaviour include:

·         Recycling bins in Australia coloured yellow or red

·         Response rates from an Irish postal survey jumped from 19.2 per cent to 36 per cent simply by putting a handwritten sticky note on the front of envelopes

·         Highly effective emotional marketing campaigns to change attitudes toward HIV, smoking, drink driving and being SunSmart

·         White road lines being painted on black tar, with metal ribs embedded in the lines to make a loud noise if you stray out of your lane.

In fact, most of the nudges in the wild mentioned earlier are activities in increasing the salience of something in the environment in order to attract your attention to what is important.

There are so many ways to increase saliency and keep things front of mind. This includes using bizarre images, the human face in ads, catchy or emotional music, scare tactics, scarcity effects, loud noises or bright lights, white space in graphic design and count-down clocks. All are examples of ways ad agencies and organisations increase saliency. Individually, this might mean putting a photo of your goal on your wall (in my case, a marathon runner), changing passwords to use words that remind you of your goal, or making your web home page a company that reminds you of your goal (like perhaps!). Make it visual and obvious so you keep front of mind the behaviour you want to repeat.

Of course, one of the ways we increase salience and motivation is through the use of incentives. That’s why on most wanted posters in the wild west the reward was more prominent than the people they were after. Even I did it with my exercise. If I ran four out of five days during the week, I would treat myself to something on the weekend. It tended to change each week—one week it would be a Sunday sleep-in, another weekend it might be going out to the movies with the boys, and another week something else. The important thing was that I rewarded myself when I met my weekly goal, and denied myself of a reward if I missed it (usually by going for a run instead—which I ended up enjoying, so win-win right!)

It might be interesting to note there is an interesting quirk about financial incentives and how our brains are wired to interpret numbers. It’s this: the size of the overall number is more important than the individual benefit. Lotteries are a good example of this. Lotteries know that people tend to notice the size of a reward rather than the chances of winning it (remember, our Apes are terrible statisticians). So, rather than incentivising the purchase of multiple tickets with discounts or cash-back for anyone who buys into a scheme, it’s actually cheaper and more effective just to raise the money on the overall prize on offer.

There are also times where we see social incentives working in direct opposition to financial incentives. A great example of cross-purpose incentives was when we were hired by one of the big four banks in Australia to observe the behaviour of staff in bank branches. There was a big focus in Australia at the time on responsible lending, and there was a fear that sales targets attached to particular products were causing staff to push products that customers didn’t need. Targets had therefore been abolished and a new incentive scheme had been cooked up to incentivise right product fit, so the incentive was attached to a range of products rather than any single product. It was assumed this would increase staff ability to match a better solution to customer needs. This sounded intuitive, and it really resonated with the staff as well, who wanted to do the right thing by customers.

Very rarely do you find anyone going to work saying, “I’m going to be terrible to someone today!” Yes, those people are out there but we didn’t find many of them in these bank branches.

What we did find was even more interesting. In these branches, customer service is a big deal. When a customer left the bank, they had a big screen next to the exit where they could rate their experience at the bank. Managers could very easily track who was delivering a good customer experience and who wasn’t, and staff were financially rewarded or penalised based on these ratings. It had a huge impact on the way staff treated customers and all seemed to be working brilliantly. A customer who’s had a good experience is a win for everyone. What we didn’t initially think of, though, was the way this impacted the behaviour of staff during the lunch-hour crush.

People who have day jobs get very little time to go to the bank (this was before we could do so much online like we can nowadays). So while the Bank was relatively empty most of the day, it was manic from midday till 2pm. Staff at tellers had to deal not only with customers in a hurry, but with customers who were frustrated they’d wasted so much of their precious lunch time. In this context, when customers finally got their turn with the staff and asked for a credit card or a personal loan, challenging the customer about their capacity to repay and refusing them the credit they came in for—particularly if they had waited for some time to get served—was not a great experience for the customer. What they did was storm out of the bank and hit a single star on the rating screen, and the staff member responsible for the low rating would feel penalised for doing the right thing.

With the customer service score so salient in the whole experience, it became a much stronger behavioural nudge. The next time a customer came in with a sketchy-looking application, the staff member would convince themselves that it should be fine, and approve the application. There was even some instances where we witnessed staff helping them with the form so as not to raise flags internally and get the loan or credit card approved. Product sold, customer happy, seems like a win-win in the moment. Problem is these customers were actually often poor with their repayments, would get themselves into bad debt cycles and became liabilities for the bank. What felt like a win-win in the moment because of the salient incentives, was actually a lose-lose.

The first thing we did was change the ratings system at the door. Instead of a star rating, it was just a thumbs up, a thumbs down or a question mark. If the customer hit the thumbs down, then a follow-up question saying, “Was one of the below reasons why your experience was not great?” which was followed by a short list of things like, “I didn’t get the credit card I need” and a simple yes or no button at the bottom. If they hit yes, then the score wasn’t added to the staff member’s customer service rating, and a little email was sent to the staff member encouraging them for having the courage to do the right thing by the customer, even if it didn’t feel so good. This had an amazing effect. A recent check-in at the bank not only reported an increase in market share, but the staff have the lowest turnover in the country and the culture is reported by the staff to be the best it’s ever been.

This was all because we fixed an incentive that had high salience but was perversely nudging good people toward not-so-great outcomes.

However, back to me building my running habit. The calendar in the kitchen was my salient reminder. Originally, it was just to keep me focused on exercising at least four days a week, but it also had the act of curbing my late-night eating and drinking. One look at the calendar and I would remember the pain of the runs and the weight I was trying to lose. In my head, I was thinking, “don’t make all that bloody effort be for nought!” It was me making my new exercise habit more salient. I also changed the background picture on my phone to a marathon runner, so every time I used my phone I was reminded of my goal to build a habit of running.

Making your goals salient so they remain front of mind also means others become aware of your goal as well. This naturally leads us to the final element, the final type of nudge that really gives us the best chance to form new habits: social accountability. This is sharing your progress and activity with people you care about, and having them hold you to account.

Share it

s we’ve explored in an earlier chapter, we all like to be part of the group. Being accepted and celebrated by the group is a core emotional driver that has been evolutionarily honed since the beginning of consciousness. This is why sharing your goals and your desired new habits with your friends, and them helping to hold you to account, is so powerful. Want to reduce your drinking? Get your friends you often drink with to help enforce a two-drink rule (or whatever rule you feel is appropriate). If you do the cooking in the household and want to start eating healthier, maybe create a closed chat group with friends where you can upload images of healthy meals you’ve cooked each night for a few months until your taste buds learn better habits. If you’re wanting to get ahead financially, set up an alert to your partner whenever you spend more than a certain amount (this can be done with some banks). It’s not just the transparency of behaviour that’s important here—it’s the accountability that comes with not wanting to look less in the eyes of your peers. It’s much easier to disappoint yourself than it is to disappoint someone you respect and whose opinion you care about.

Whenever I think of using social dynamics to influence behaviour, I’m always reminded of a concept in behavioural economics called pre-commitment. Multiple studies have shown that, if you allow people to determine their own deadlines, they’ll be less likely to procrastinate, their individual performance on tasks will improve (as long as you’re spacing deadlines out), and they’ll feel more in control and responsible. In a way, you’re telling people to be their own boss. This is a technique I use all the time to great effect. By asking people to be their own boss, you increase their buy-in and get them to pre-commit to deadlines. In turn, they will perform better, feel more in control, and feel more satisfied with the work they have done. If you want to investigate more about pre-commitment, behavioural economist Dan Ariely has done lots of studies in this area. A good paper to start with is titled, Procrastination, deadlines and performance: Self-control by precommitment, or just do a search on precommitment and you’ll find a whole range of interesting reads.

Key to this idea of precommitment seems to be the act of signing your own name to something you’ve come up with. We use this all the time when we are working with fractured teams in organisations. We get them to co-create a social contract they agree to and sign their name to it. We then scan and print out a small (but still legible) version, which they keep somewhere visible around their workspace to keep it front of mind. This is a powerful tool that really does help teams move from political infighting to building trust and working together productively—as long as they genuinely contributed to the social contract.

This idea of precommitment also works when you’re trying to get employees to take more responsibility for the quality of their own work. A great example of this came one day when I received a call from Dennis, a friend of mine who owns a successful cabinet-making business in New Zealand. He was frustrated his company had four levels of quality control on the cabinets before they were sent to customers, and with increased wages and increased competition on household items driving down prices, the heavy bureaucracy and high cost of the quality control process was eroding any profit. His frustration was, “If we just got it right the first time, then surely we wouldn’t need all these levels of quality control”. The challenge was to streamline the quality control process without undermining the quality of the product.

Dennis was a big fan of Alpha Romeos, and mentioned he always liked the fact the vehicle technician personally signed the engine of each car they helped construct. Dennis saw this as a sign of pride for the mechanic and would ensure the quality of the build, because he’d personally branded his name on it. His idea was to get the craftsmen that were building the cabinets to sign their names on the underside of the benches. He knew the cabinet-makers took great pride in their professions and thought this might motivate a higher level of quality checking in the first place before they signed their name to the work. It’s a great idea but I thought we could take it one step further. Drawing upon our success with social contracts, I suggested he get his chief craftsmen to write a paragraph about what it means to be a master cabinet-maker and personally sign it. Then I asked Dennis to frame it with the photo of the master cabinet-maker and hang it in a prominent position where clients and fellow workers can see it. This acted as a kind of social contract. It wasn’t precommitment to a specific task completion date but to the quality of work.

Due to the recency of the conversation, this particular intervention is still in its early days— but, as you can imagine, the impact of general motivation, culture and overall pride and engagement in their work is palpable. What’s even more interesting is when you extend this beyond the quality of craftmanship to the integrity of a salesperson, to the conduct of a manager, or the quality of care for a health worker. Not only does it build pride in the work, it builds trust in the customer, and uses social accountability to keep things on track.

The way this is used to build better habits is when it’s linked to a specific goal or ritual you want to repeat. I committed to my business partners that I’d run at least four times per week, and so, at our daily stand-ups, they help hold me accountable to that.

Sharing your experiences has been made a lot easier nowadays with a range of technology encouraging transparency and accountability. My running app is a great example of this, sending push notifications if I haven’t run for a while, and using social reinforcement by getting my fellow runners to celebrate key achievements and encourage me when I need it. It also allows me to see what my friends are doing and I use this to motivate me to keep up.

I must say that, now running is a habit, I don’t really need all these prompts anymore. But they were really, really helpful in creating the habitual behaviour in the first place.

If you want to create an environment where you’re most likely to repeat something enough for it to be a habit, then create simple rules, work at reducing resistance, find ways to keep goals and the desired behaviours front of mind, and share it with people whose opinion you care about.

Simple right? I challenge everyone reading to just pick one habit that they want to change or create, think about each of these elements and then see if you can keep it going for a month. You’ve got nothing to lose by giving it a crack.

Does transparency always nudge people in the right direction?

 think one of the most exciting areas for the future of nudging is in the area of health and rehabilitation from trauma or injury (both mentally and physically). The reason for this is that when you’re in pain, or frustrated, or feeling mental fatigue in some way, your ability to make good decisions is dramatically reduced. Add to this the fact these scenarios don’t come around all that often so patients have low familiarity with what to do. That means simple processes often feel complex just because they’re unfamiliar. This leaves us vulnerable to all sorts of people and industries that are more than happy to free you of your finances to help. It becomes very hard to know who is genuine and who is a predator.

In an age of digital transformation and big data, it becomes possible to create systems and environments that encourage better decision-making for everyone in the process. This is about getting the right information to the right people at the right time, simplifying unnecessarily complex processes, and increasing transparency when it helps, and speed when it doesn’t. This last point is particularly interesting because we all intuitively think transparency is one of the keys to better decisions and arrangements between multiple parties—but this doesn’t actually seem to be the case in many situations.

My good friend, Uwe Dullech, is one of the titans in the field of behavioural economics and one of a great group of scientists, economists, management experts and psychologists at the Queensland University of Technology. He and his fellow researchers were intrigued by the idea of whether transparency of commissions paid to brokers would influence a client’s choice of provider. The common thought was that if a broker was being paid a higher commission by provider A than provider B, then broker X would sell more of provider A’s product, irrespective of whether it was the best choice for a particular client. In a way, the broker in this situation becomes a salesperson for Provider A but it looks to the clients as though they’re an independent advisor. It was hypothesised by some financial big brains that if the client knew of the commission arrangement between the broker and the providers, they’d be less influenced by the broker’s advice and more likely to make a rational decision.

However, what Uwe and his team found was something quite different. Their research revealed commission transparency engendered more trust between the client and the broker. The client saw the broker as more open and honest and this increased their confidence in the advice given. The proportion of Provider A’s sales increased along with the commission transparency, rather than decreasing. It was like there was a reciprocity of trust being exchanged; You’ve trusted me with this information, therefore I’m going to trust you more as well. Transparency in this situation actually led to lower conscious decision-making from the client.

From a health perspective, this raises some pretty interesting questions, particularly if a patient is needing to make decisions while they’re recovering from an accident or serious injury. General practitioners, lawyers, allied health professionals, hospitals, insurance companies, chemists and a range of other trusted people and professions often gain some form of incentive when they recommend a particular product or service in the rehabilitation pathway. Attempts have been made to make this complex web of incentives more transparent to improve health outcomes for patients by encouraging decisions more in the interests of the care-receiver than the care-giver. The reciprocity of trust theory suggests this may not be the case.

There are, of course, instances where transparency has dramatically improved outcomes and decision-making. For example, the internet arriving in the early 1990s dramatically increased the transparency of the property market, greatly reducing the opportunity for some unscrupulous real estate agents to use misinformation or to withhold crucial information from buyers and sellers. In this industry, information is power and, back then, the real estate agent held all of the cards. Increased transparency improved buyers’ and sellers’ real estate decision-making because information wasn’t controlled by agents. It wasn’t transparency of incentives as such but easy access to relevant information that made it simple to spot the bullshit.

It’s interesting to see how differently people act when certain private information is made available. For instance, do you think you’d behave differently at work if everyone knew everyone else’s wage? This was the exact situation another friend of mine faced after he was hired as CEO of one of India’s largest and fastest-growing technology companies. On his first day, he walked into the foyer of the building in Bangalore to find a massive poster welcoming him to the company. The interesting thing was this poster also announced his yearly salary, his bonus package, the KPIs that would trigger his bonuses, and the key accountabilities he had in the company! He hadn’t even met his team yet and the usually very personal and private details of his employment were advertised for all to see.

When talking to him about this 12 months later, he actually remembered this moment with great fondness. After the initial shock and slight embarrassment, he actually felt great relief and confidence. It turned out everyone in the company knew what everyone else was paid and how they were being incentivised, so it wasn’t really a thing. People who were paid more were less able to hide inactivity and the group held them more accountable. For him, it allowed him to lead with confidence and helped others around him know where they could assist in ways that were actually meaningful to both the company and him. Transparency in that context, with that company, in that time and in that culture, actually improved behaviours and decision-making right across the organisation. It’s fascinating to wonder if it would have the same impact in other organisations around the world.

What this company was doing was designing the decision environment to nudge people toward better behaviours and decisions. What I loved about this was it wasn’t a control mechanism at all. Actually quite the opposite—it was a nudge. This is the beautiful thing about nudges. They’re simple environmental changes that cause significant shifts in behaviour. It’s putting food out for our Apes to lead them in a certain direction. In a way, we could call nudges, bananas. It’s not the whole story of how to influence your behaviour but it does play a significant part. And the reason it plays a significant part is because of a weird quirk of our brain when dealing with ‘cognitive dissonance’.

Cognitive dissonance is the term used to describe the feeling we get when our attitudes and behaviours don’t align. It’s the feeling you get when you don’t stick up for a friend but you wish you had. It’s the odd feeling you get if you sell something dodgy to an unsuspecting buyer. It’s the feeling you get when you’re working late and you’re missing your child’s birthday party. It’s the feeling you get when you’ve paid an amount for an item that far exceeds its actual value, particularly if you don’t believe in excessive living. It’s the feeling you get if you drive around in an obviously very expensive car when you don’t think it’s right to be a show-off. It’s the mental pain you feel when your attitudes and your behaviours are out of alignment.

As mentioned previously, your brain is hardwired to avoid pain, so it will always look to resolve this pain as quickly as possible. The thing is, once you’ve done something, you can’t change it, so if your brain is suffering the pain of cognitive dissonance after an action, the only real option it has is to change your attitude toward that action. This makes your brain feels good! We like to believe our values and attitudes drive our behaviour but a lot of the time, it’s that the other way around. Change your behaviours, and your attitudes toward those behaviours will shift as well.

Don’t like exercise? Start exercising and you’ll change your attitudes and beliefs about the benefits of exercise. Think sugar is poison? Start eating sweet things and see how your attitude softens. Think a certain country has draconian and scary attitudes toward privacy and surveillance? Decide to live in that country and see if your attitudes towards surveillance change. Nudging is so important because small changes in our behaviours can lead to significant changes in our attitudes. It is why organisational culture is so important. Behaviours shape attitudes. When we aren’t in control of our Ape and our Ape goes Apes#!t, we will post-rationalise and justify our Ape behaviours to make us feel better. The smarter we are, the better we are at making rational arguments to justify poor behaviour. This is why high IQ has no correlation with good decision-making.

It’s easy to see how nudging is often used in our digital lives through our devices and different advertising campaigns. There have been literally hundreds of books, thousands of videos and millions of articles written about these areas, with each offering great insight into the ever-fascinating topic of how we get sucked in. One of the most entertaining shows around at the moment is The gruen transfer, which does a great job at pulling apart different ad campaigns and the psychology behind them. If you can find it online, it makes for very entertaining viewing.

What is less obvious, and less talked about, is the way nudging and psychological prompts aid in creating better work environments. Particularly when managing a large group of people through a complex, and sometimes painful, change process.

Chapter snapshot

Key take-aways

1.       There are four main elements to creating new habits

a.                 Create simple rules (a list of the rule types can be found on page 268 and 269)

b.                 Reduce resistance (removing anything that could be stopping you)

c.                 Keep it front of mind (keep obvious reminders around you to help your Ape remember that it’s important)

d.       Share it (social accountability is one of the strongest behavioural nudges we have)

2.       Simply by making things transparent, does not mean that you will encourage the correct behaviours – sometimes it helps reinforce negative ones.

3.       Cognitive dissonance is what your brain feels when your actions and your attitudes don’t align. Ninety-nine percent of the time you will change your attitudes to match your actions – not the other way around.

4.       Change people’s behaviour, and their attitudes will follow.

Things I can do to practically apply this insight

·         Pick a new habit you want to create.

·         Go through each of the four elements of new habit creation and list everything you can do to give yourself the best chance of effectively creating the new habit.

·         Now just do it. Even if your Ape doesn’t want to. Your Ape’s attitude will change once your behaviour is embedded. You are not your ape. Control it – don’t let it control you!


·         What bad habit do you have, and why do you think you continue to do it?

·         Can you remember a time when you felt cognitive dissonance? Did you change your attitudes to justify your behaviour?


·         What does your Ape love to do? Why do you think it loves to do this? Is there a way to use this love to help create new, better habits?

Interested to read more…?