It turns out that our brains haven’t evolved enough to keep up with our 24/7, always connected society. According to Bob Nease, former Chief Scientist at Express Scripts, our brains are stuck, evolutionarily, in the past. And this makes it difficult for us to choose to take action when pursuing something important.
In his new book,, Nease explains that our brain consumes ten million bits of information per second, yet our conscious brain can only process fifty bits per second. This might explain why our attention span seems to be shrinking—we’ve become a society in a perpetual state of ADD.
While our brains are wired for inattention and inertia, “not for attention and choice,” says Nease, we can seek solutions despite our biology. This requires a shift in our thinking. According to the author/scientist, we do not have an “infinite appetite for information [or] boundless willingness to make decisions.” Instead, we’d rather choose to do something that brings pleasure, or focus on a pressing issue.
Confronting the limitations of our brains, reveals seven strategies that make it possible for you to get what you want. These strategies, according to Nease, help you overcome the limitations of the brain and intentionally create the results you want.
Let’s say you need a colleague to get started on their part of an important project. Where we go wrong, explains Nease, is by focusing on changing the person’s underlying intentions through persuasion or cajoling: “What will it take for you to do this for me?” or, “If you start on the project now, you’ll make us all look good.” Neither of these is going to help you get what you want.
Instead, Bob Nease suggests focusing on their preexisting good intentions to choose your project over their other work. Nease says “activate their preexisting intentions to do the right thing.” How, you ask? Implement active choice.
Active choice is when you stop a person and intentionally ask them what they want: “I need you to tell me if you can start the project work this Friday or next Monday.” The intent with active choice is to interrupt the inattention and force a decision.
Lock in Good Intentions
Essential to this strategy is to “allow people to make decisions today that will lead to better behaviors in the future,” says Nease. Critical to this strategy is precommitment.
Let’s say you want to save for retirement. A precommitment approach would be to have money automatically deducted from your paycheck and put into retirement accounts. Another example from Nease’s book is to remove all the TVs from your house if you want to spend more quality time on hobbies or reading.
Let It Ride
This strategy is about influencing behavior to go with a desired option, but giving people the option to opt-out if they want.
In an interview with the author, he shared an example from the 1980’s. Columbia House record club would send you a certain amount of records for one penny. When you sent in your penny, you automatically were enrolled in the program and had to buy a certain amount of records at full retail price within a year’s timeframe. People could opt out of the program by returning the records The program worked. Early in the company’s history, it commanded 10% of the industry’s record sales.
Get in the Flow
If you want a colleague to call you, you might put a sticky note in the middle of his computer monitor. Manufacturers pay stores extra money to put their products at eye level. This is where consumer’s attention naturally goes.
It is the nature of this strategy: put and arrange something in a manner that follows peoples’ attention.
Reframe the Choices
Getting what you want doesn’t need to be coercive. You can shape the choices people make by framing their options in a way that encourages “better behaviors and decisions,” says Nease.
Consider this example – choose your language purposely when encouraging an employee to step out of her comfort zone: “Would you rather attend classes next quarter to learn how to code or spend time with me learning how to do it?”
Nease explains that getting what you want could be as simple as piggybacking “a desired choice or behavior to something that is already attractive.”
If you want employees to be healthy, incent them to see their doctor. As an example, a Fortune 100 insurance company adds $100 to employees’ flex spending accounts if they get an annual check-up. They’ll add another $100 if they see their dentist.
Nease explains in his book that this strategy is about helping others make the right choice by making it easy and creating hesitation for the suboptimal choice.
Let’s say you want employees to track time spent on projects. Using this strategy, you could design an easy way for employees to track when they begin and end the project work right from their computers. You would make it difficult for employees to opt-out of capturing time.
Bob Nease’s The Power of Fifty Bits is a practical guide that walks you through the science behind his research and how to apply it to your life. In this era of distraction, short attention spans, and hurried lifestyles, Nease shares actionable insights that counter the realities of the 21st century. They are ideal for leaders, parents, and anyone else who is interested in creating positive results.
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