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An Insider's Guide to Behavior Change
We’re all trying to make the right choices in our pursuit of happiness. On the road to good habits, however, evolution and our own psychology have thrown in plenty of obstacles.
In this section, you’ll find articles to break down the biases, habits, and behaviors standing in the way of better health, better relationships, and the career you really want. Everything from hacks to new habits, the most scientifically verified research to the latest findings, this section will cue you in to life’s secrets that most people are missing out on.
The big things like success, acclaim, and financial freedom really come down to the small things, like daily routines, key behaviors, and managing distraction, exercised over a lifetime. We’ll look at how to stop procrastinating and how to stay focused. You’ll feel more in control of your daily routine.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit,” wrote Will Durant. We like to think we’ll gain success in one big leap, but it’s a mastery of our daily life choices that makes all the difference. Your habits are the building blocks of your days, your days are the building blocks of your weeks, and your months, and your years. Changing habits is the key.
Making Better Decisions
We have more decisions than ever to make, about careers, friendships, and our health, to name a few. Experts have found that biases that we are not aware of skew our perception of our options and create blind spots on our choices. The more you understand these blind spots, from confirmation bias to status quo bias, present bias to hyperbolic discounting, the better you’ll be able to steer around your mental obstacles to make the wisest life choices.
No one wants to look back on their life and wonder if they could have done better. Make yourself proud by building the best life you can achieve. We’ll show you how to make better life choices to meet your goals, be an A-player, and maximize your strengths.
Top Articles on Behavior Change
Nir’s Note: This post part of a series on cognitive bias co-authored with and illustrated by Lakshmi Mani. Discover other reasons you make terrible life choices like confirmation bias, hyperbolic discounting and distinction bias.
It’s New Year’s Eve. There I am on the dance floor – it’s teeming with people and there’s hardly space to breathe. Loud thumping music pierces my eardrums and I have no idea where my friends are.
Then, the guy next to me takes a misstep, spills an entire cup of beer down my shoulder. I gasp as the cold brew winds its way down my back. But he’s too drunk and the music is too loud for him to notice. Is this supposed to be fun? What am I doing here? I hail a ride to get out of there.
At home, after wringing out my shirt and getting ready for bed, I take a minute to pull up my phone and glance at my Instagram stories.
There I see the plate of chocolate cake from the dinner with friends that started the evening.
Nir’s Note: This post part of a series on cognitive bias co-authored with and illustrated by Lakshmi Mani. Discover other reasons you make terrible life choices like confirmation bias and hyperbolic discounting.
There I was, looking at an enormous wall of television screens. Each one flashed the exact same scene — a beautiful flower slowly blooming to reveal each petal, pistil, and stamen in exquisite super high definition detail. It was downright sexy. But now it was time to make my choice.
Would I buy the $400 television within my budget or would I splurge on the $500 deluxe model that somehow helped me understand plant biology in a new, more intimate way?
Though every cone and rod in my eyeballs begged me to buy the better one, my more sensible instinct kicked in. “Your budget is $400, remember?” Sighing, I bought the crappy model and braced for a life of media mediocrity.
Nir’s Note: This post is co-authored with and illustrated by Lakshmi Mani, a product designer working in San Francisco.
You walk into your first yoga class. You’re a little insecure about your weight and how your yoga clothes cling to your body revealing every flaw. You’re nervous about making a fool of yourself.
Your eyes instantly zoom onto the fit model-esque people chatting in the corner. As you walk past them, your ears pick up the tinkle of laughter. My god, are they laughing at me?
You pick a spot in the back of the classroom where no one can see you. The teacher asks everyone to get into crouching fish pose. Do people know this pose?
You flail around on your mat and fall over with a big thump.
Nir’s Note: This guest post is written and illustrated by Lakshmi Mani, a product designer working in San Francisco.
Have you ever had a mounting pile of work you know you need to do but for some reason didn’t? There’s an important deadline looming, your boss is breathing down your neck, the pressure is on — all signs are pointing to you getting it done. Yet you put it off, turn on Netflix, and fantasize about how you’re going to crush it tomorrow.
Nir’s Note: This guest post is by Paulette Perhach. Paulette writes about finances, psychology, technology, travel, and better living for the likes of The New York Times, Elle, and Slate.
I learned how to respect authority from my father. At the top of a huge water slide at a theme park, he put me, my siblings and cousins in a huge, round raft, then started to get in himself. “No sir, that’s too many,” said the attendant. My father simply replied, “Hup, too late!” Then jumped in and shoved off. We caught air on the bumps, making the ride much more wild than it would have been, had we followed the rules.
Dodging the regulations of anyone with a whistle or a name tag became my favorite game. I avoided homework in sixth grade and, when I had a solid 0 percent in the class at midterm and my parents grounded me for six weeks, I filibustered my way out of my punishment by the second weekend. For years at school, I did the least amount of work possible, then crammed for tests. In high school, I had the best fake ID.
But, the same sass and laziness I used with my home life got me nearly fired from almost every job I had in high school. When I graduated, I stood in a cap and gown, knowing I was supposed to be educated, but that I only looked educated on paper. Drinking too young, as well, had its consequences. I’m lucky nothing terrible happened, but I still wish I hadn’t been so out of control so young.
As an adult, I learned that there are consequences, and then there are Consequences. Little consequences are the human-imposed rules that I can work around, hack, or ignore. They are a parent’s training ground for real life, a boss’s way to make sure the organization runs smoothly, and a government’s standards for building a society. They are human, and so they are flawed and breakable. I find it fun to find the cracks in the system and sneak through.
Consequences with a capital C are life’s natural effects of our human actions. I can sneak past the guard and ignore the sign at the aquarium that says don’t touch the marine life, but that doesn’t mean a turtle won’t bite my finger off. I can smoke cigarettes when no one’s looking and douse myself in perfume to hide the smell, but I can’t sneak a smoking habit past lung cancer. Much later than it should have taken me, I finally understood that discipline is the way you obey the laws of the universe.
Until recently, when I needed a break I’d grab my phone. Whether I was bored, mentally fatigued, or just wanting a pick-me-up, I felt relief checking the news, Facebook, or Instagram.
However, new research suggests there are good ways and not-so-good ways to spend our break time. While some breaks can leave us refreshed and reenergized, others tend to leave us depleted and drained.
In their book “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World” Dr. Gazzaley, a neuroscientist, and Dr. Rosen, a psychologist, explain that good breaks can reduce mental fatigue, boost brain function, and keep us on-task for longer periods. But Gazzaley and Rosen forewarn that taking the wrong sort of breaks might make us more susceptible to boredom and may actually backfire by making us want to take breaks more often.
“…technology may be decreasing the time associated with the onset of boredom when single tasking as a result of our ever-escalating exposure to pervasive, high-frequency feedback…”
In other words, repeatedly checking our phones when we get a tad bored can train us to check more often throughout the day.
“From decades of research on learning and behavior, we know that the shorter the time between reinforcements (rewards), the stronger the drive to complete that behavior and gain the reward.”
Having a hard time focusing lately? You’re not alone. Research shows interruptions occur about every twelve minutes in the workplace, and every three minutes in university settings. In an age of constant digital interruptions, it is no wonder you’re having trouble ignoring distractions.
In their new book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist, and Dr. Larry Rosen, a psychologist, explain how our ability to pay attention works and what we can do to stay focused.
It turns out, attention isn’t as simple as it seems. In fact, paying attention involves two separate functions: “enhancement” (our ability to focus on things that matter) and “suppression” (our ability to ignore the things that don’t). Interestingly, enhancement and suppression are not opposites, they are distinct processes in the brain.
“Although it may seem counterintuitive, we now appreciate that focusing and ignoring are not two sides of the same coin […] it is not necessarily true that when you focus more on something, you automatically ignore everything else better. We have shown in our lab that different [brain] networks are engaged when we focus compared to when we ignore the same thing.”
These processes are so separate, in fact, there are different networks of brain structures that carry out their respective functions, each of which is critical for attention.
If either of these brain processes is impaired, we lose focus. For example: we struggle with attention when we are tired, drunk, and, most notably, as we age.
Older adults are biologically more distractible than young adults. Personal anecdotes and scientific evidence demonstrate that our attentional capacity peaks near age twenty and diminishes over time. Gazzaley discovered that age-related declines are caused by a deficit in the suppression (ignoring) process.
DJ Khaled, the one-man internet meme, is known for warning his tens of millions of social media followers about a group of villains he calls “they.”
“They don’t want you motivated. They don’t want you inspired,” he blares on camera. “They don’t want you to win,” he warns. On Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show, Khaled urged the host, “Please, Ellen, stay away from them!”
The “they” Khaled invokes are clearly a sinister force. But who are they? Khaled offered clues when he told DeGeneres, “They are the people who don’t believe in you.…They is the person that told you you would never have an Ellen show.”
Although Khaled’s claims may seem outlandish, he is in fact leveraging a powerful psychological hack: scapegoating. The practice of imagining a villain that’s conspiring against us, scapegoating can be an effective way to motivate ourselves and change our behaviors. Of course, as history has shown, terrible things can happen when people act on baseless conspiracy theories. But sometimes the antidote is in the venom.
Khaled isn’t the first to use the technique. In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield uses an entity he calls “Resistance” to describe the force conspiring against creative output. “Most of us have two lives,” Pressfield writes. “The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.” Throughout his book Pressfield reminds readers, “Resistance is always plotting against you.”
The author and game designer Jane McGonigal described a similar conspiracy of bad guys in her book SuperBetter. McGonigal blames villains like “Mrs. Volcano” and “Snuff the Tragic Dragon” when she loses her temper with her kids or feels self-pity.
Not so long ago, my after work routine looked like this: After a particularly grueling day, I’d sit on the couch and veg for hours, doing my solo version of “Netflix and chill,” which meant keeping company with a cold pint of ice cream. I knew the ice cream, and the sitting, were probably a bad idea, but I told myself this was my well-deserved “reward” for working so hard.
Psychological researchers have a name for this phenomenon: it’s called “ego depletion.” The theory is that willpower is connected to a limited reserve of mental energy, and once you run out of that energy, you’re more likely to lose self-control. This theory would seem to perfectly explain my after-work indulgences.
But new studies suggest that we’ve been thinking about willpower all wrong, and that the theory of ego depletion isn’t true. Even worse, holding on to the idea that willpower is a limited resource can actually be bad for you, making you more likely to lose control and act against your better judgment.The Way You Think About Willpower Is Hurting You Click To Tweet
Nir’s Note: This article on goal setting was originally published in early 2016 but got such a great reader response that I decided to expand and update it along with adding the video below. Let me know what you think in the comments.
Over the past four years, I’ve discovered many incredible ways to hack my habits, set better goals, and improve my life. I have taught myself to love running, dramatically improved my diet and found the focus to write a bestselling book. Understanding how the mind works and using it to affect my daily behaviors has yielded tremendous dividends.
You have just a few days to learn everything there is to know about a subject you know nothing about. Now what?
I was staring at a serious problem. To help our firm win a multimillion-dollar consulting contract, I had five days to tell my new boss everything there was to know about airline bankruptcies. Problem was, I didn’t know the first thing about airline bankruptcies.
Nir’s Note: This guest post is an excerpt from my friend Ryan Holiday’s new book, Ego Is the Enemy. Ryan is the author of three other books and his monthly reading recommendations, which go out to 50,000+ subscribers, can be found here.
It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character.
John DeLorean ran his car company into the ground with a mix of outsized ambition, negligence, narcissism, greed, and mismanagement. As the bad news began to pile up and the picture was made clear and public, how do you think he responded? Was it with resigned acceptance? Did he acknowledge the errors his disgruntled employees were speaking out about for the first time? Was he able to reflect, even slightly, on the mistakes and decisions that had brought him, his investors, and his employees so much trouble? read more…
When my wife and I moved to New York City in 2001, recently graduated from college and newly wed, we were eager to find friends. We knew nearly no one but were sure we’d soon find a fun-loving group like the 20- and 30-something New Yorkers who spontaneously dropped in on one another on TV shows like Seinfeld and Friends.
We hatched a plan. After moving into our Midtown Manhattan apartment, we invited all the neighbors over for drinks by placing Kinko’s-printed quarter-sheets into everyone’s mailboxes. Then, we waited for our versions of Chandler, Kramer, and Elaine to show up. But they didn’t. In fact, no one did. As the ice in the cooler melted and the guacamole browned, not a single person among 100 apartments stopped by. Not. One. Person. read more…
Changing habits is hard. But what if there was a way to dramatically improve your odds of quitting even your worst habits? What if this method was shown to be over 8 times more effective than traditional methods at helping people quit a stubborn addiction like smoking? Would you try it? read more…
Diets don’t work. Studies show that temporary fixes to old habits actually make people gain weight. Essentially, the dieter’s brain is trained to gorge when off the diet and inevitably the weight returns.
In my previous essay, I shared the story of my father’s struggle with bad eating habits. He had put on weight over the last few decades and despite several attempts, he had trouble taking it off. In his late 60s he faces pre-diabetes and a daily ritual of taking a handful of pills.
But over the last five months, something has changed. He’s found a new way to resist the temptation of the food he’s been trying to stop eating for years. read more…
When my family immigrated to the United States in 1981, my father weighed 185 pounds. He came chasing the American dream but got more than he expected. Along with a new, more prosperous life for his family, he also acquired some bad habits. read more…
Nir’s Note: This book review is by Sam McNerney. Sam writes about cognitive psychology, business, and philosophy.
Many of us feel we’re drowning in the rising tide of emails, updates, and digital distractions. According to a survey by the Families and Work Institute, the majority of American workers report feeling overwhelmed or overworked. In her new book, Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has The Time, Brigid Schulte acknowledges that although the deluge of to do’s is inevitable, there are ways to regain our sanity. read more…
I had just finished giving a speech on building habits when a woman in the audience exclaimed, “You teach how to create habits, but that’s not my problem. I’m fat!” The frustration in her voice echoed throughout the room. “My problem is stopping bad habits. That’s why I’m fat. Where does that leave me?” read more…
Fitness apps are all the rage. An explosion of new companies and products want to track your steps and count your calories with the aim of melting that excess blubber. There’s just one problem — most of these apps don’t work. In fact, there is good reason to believe they make us fatter. read more…
Nir’s Note: This book review is by Sam McNerney. Sam writes about cognitive psychology, business, and philosophy.
In Moneyball, Michael Lewis tells the story of Billy Bean, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics who transformed the A’s using sabermetrics, the data-driven approach to understanding baseball. Bean noticed that instead of using data to predict player performance, baseball professionals relied on faulty intuitions and anecdotes. Commentators debate how effective sabermetrics actually is, but Bean’s original insight—that we can’t learn that much about baseball just by watching—changed the game. read more…
Nir’s Note: This post is co-authored with Stuart Luman, a science, technology, and business writer who has worked at Wired Magazine, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and IBM.
“I wish that I could be like the cool kids,” goes the catchy hook for the hit song by Echosmith. The official video has been viewed over 15 million times on YouTube, perhaps tapping into something deeper than mere adolescent angst.
We all want to be like the cool kids. read more…
In 1936, a man named Kurt Lewin wrote a simple equation that changed the way we think about habits and human behavior.
The equation makes the following statement: Behavior is a function of the Person in their Environment.  read more…
Nir’s Note: This guest post is by Dr. Marc Lewis, who studies the psychology and neuroscience of addiction. After years of active research, Marc now talks, writes, and blogs about the science and experience of addiction and how people outgrow it. Visit his website here.
You’ve just obliterated the last seven or eight zombies. It was a narrow escape and you’re flushed with satisfaction. But you didn’t see that horrendous creep, weaping sores and oozing pus, because he was hidden behind the dustbin in the shadow of a bombed out building. You get slimed, you’re dead. Or worse than dead. So you touch the “play again” bar at the bottom of the screen. Now you start further ahead than last time. You know you’re going to meet the slime-master again. Soon. Be prepared. read more…
Nir’s Note: This guest post is written by Max Ogles. Max writes at MaxOgles.com about behavior change, psychology, and technology. Sign up for a free copy of his upcoming e-book, “9 Ways to Motivate Yourself Using Psychology and Technology.”
A commonly quoted and incredibly scary stat reveals that 9 out of 10 people who undergo heart bypass surgeries as a result of poor health are unable to change their habits, even with their lives on the line.
We’ve all failed at something, though luckily most of us don’t face death as a consequence. Here’s a short list of some of the good habits I started, only to eventually fail: read more…
Nir’s Note: This guest post is written by Max Ogles. Max is an editor for NirAndFar.com and heads marketing for CoachAlba.com, a mobile health startup. Follow him on Twitter and read his blog at MaxOgles.com.
Weight gain happens pound by pound, over many years, and that’s how Dave Haynes found himself sixty pounds away from a healthy BMI. In his career, Dave was immersed in the startup world; he helped start Soundcloud, which allows anyone to share and produce music and has over 10 million users. So when he ultimately resolved to reverse this disturbing weight trend, he naturally looked to technology for the solution; he downloaded the popular fitness apps and bought an Internet-connected Withings scale. But could these online apps help him achieve real-life behavior change? read more…
Nir’s Note: This guest post comes from Brendan Kane who has built technology for MTV, Paramount, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, and the NHL. In this article, Brendan describes how he reprogramed the way he views the world using little more than his iPhone and iPad to find happiness.
We all have the power to change our lives and find happiness. I know this because I found ways to reprogram my inner circuitry and change my perspective of the world to ultimately find happiness. A few simple steps inserted into my daily routine dramatically improved my life and helped me feel more happy, joy, and fulfillment. Surprisingly, many of my new rituals were made possible using the technology I carry with me every day. read more…
Nir’s Note: Is “no” the most powerful word in the English language? In this guest post Chikodi Chima explores the power of no and what happens when people say, “No.” Chikodi is a former VentureBeat staff reporter who helps startups with their public relations and marketing. His blog is PR Tips For Startups and he is @Chikodi on Twitter.
Sirens were beautiful creatures from Greek Mythology who lured sailors to their death. The power of their song was so irresistible it would cause captains to steer their boats into the rocks and drown. We are also seduced daily by ideas that sound great at first, but may leave us shipwrecked, unless we have the power to say no.
Investor Marc Suster recently warned about the perils of shiny new objects.”Everything you say “yes” to is incrementally one more thing to support and you die a death by a thousand cuts,” he says. “I strongly believe that your success will be more defined by read more…
Nir’s Note: This guest post is by Auren Hoffman, the CEO of LiveRamp in San Francisco. This essay is a bit different from the normal subject matter on the blog but I hope it will stir some discussion about which of our personal habits are worth improving. Connect with Auron on Twitter at @auren or on Facebook.
To really differentiate yourself and become a superstar in this winner-take-all world, you should be focusing on read more…
Imagine walking into a busy mall when someone approaches you with an open hand. “Would you have some coins to take the bus, please?” he asks. But in this case, the person is not a panhandler. The beggar is a PhD.
As part of a French study, researchers wanted to know if they could influence how much money people handed to a total stranger using just a few specially encoded words. They discovered a technique so simple and effective read more…
A funny thing happens when you lie to people: they tend to believe. Why shouldn’t they? They lie to themselves all the time. Our minds are wired to respond in predictable ways–among them is perceiving the world the way we want to see it, not necessarily the way it is.
Perhaps no other phenomenon demonstrates our brain’s ability to make believe better than the placebo effect. read more…
Oliver Burkeman’s new book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, challenges many widely-held assumptions. In this video, Burkeman discusses how positivity, goal setting, and visualization, often backfire.
My talk at the Silicon Valley Quantified Self Meetup at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
The two most important slides:
Note: I’m proud to have co-authored this post with my good friend Charles Wang. Charles is a co-founder of LUMOback, a former classmate, and an accomplished psychiatrist. He brings a great perspective to the art of Behavior Engineering.
Here’s the gist:
- Forming new habits requires a unique set of techniques.
- Training to become an expert has a completely different methodology than becoming an amateur.
- Using the wrong technique will doom your good intentions.
Today’s top selling books are about how to acquire world-class skill. Daniel Coyle’s, The Talent Code looks at how deliberate practice is required to achieve greatness. Joshua Foer shows us how we must smash past performance plateaus to be any good. Worse, Tim Ferris’s 4-Hour series is doing for hipsters what crash diets do for teenage girls, making promises of quick transformations.
These authors’ methods work. Yet, they are all dead wrong. read more…
“Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”
– Warren Buffet
If you’re like most people, you have a New Year’s resolution in place and you may have even stuck to it so far this year. Good for you! Realistically though, you’re going to fail. read more…
What if I told you I know of a guaranteed, foolproof way to get in the best physical shape of your life without strenuous workouts? How would you like to achieve success at work, without grueling hours at the office? It sounds too good to be true read more…
NirandFar is about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. I call it "Behavioral Design."
I write to help companies design consumer behavior while educating individuals about behavior change and digital distraction. Feel free to read more about me here.
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