Iterate Lifestyle Design


Leo of Zen Habits wrote about using an iterative design plan for habit change. Basically, ship the habit as soon as possible and then every few days learn from your mistakes to fine tune the habit. I love this concept. I plan on using this method for many of my experiments in next year’s Year of Change. I hope that I can add to and build on Leo’s article.

At work we did a team building activity called the Marshmallow Challenge. In small teams we have 18 minutes to design and build a tower to hold a marshmallow using only spaghetti, tape and string. After hundreds of case studies, kindergarteners outperformed many adults in building these towers. The reason? The kids built their towers using iterative design. Instead of spending time planning, playing power games and deciding what to do, they started building the tower. Throughout the 18 minutes they would test what worked and what didn’t. They prototyped, shipped, improved and then prototyped again. Most groups of adults simply build the best tower they can think of and then scramble to add the marshmallow at the very end of the challenge. These towers almost always failed miserably.

The kindergartener’s towers worked because they gathered real-world data about what was working and what wasn’t. If a design wasn’t working, they changed it and tested it again. Shipping, learning and applying can work similarly in many aspects of our daily lives.

Imagine the possibilities of iterative design for any habit or other aspect of your life. In the past, my habits have consisted of something like this:

  • Want to do a habit
  • Go all out with the habit
  • Lose focus, get tired, something comes up, etc.
  • Stop doing the habit
  • Wonder what happened
  • Forget about the habit

Sound familiar? The problem with this design is the same problem with the towers. I assume that version one of my habit plan should work perfectly. As soon as I put the marshmallow on top of the tower (start doing the habit) there are of course tons of problems. The habit, like the spaghetti, bends and breaks and my habit fails. We get frustrated when our efforts and plans seem to have failed. This same concept can be applied to everything from home improvement projects to motivation at work to dating. We too often assume that the first version of our plans will work out. We get frustrated and give up when it doesn’t work out.

The truth is, most plans don’t work out the first time. Or the second time. Or the third time… Prototyping is a long, difficult process. Instead of giving up after our first failure, we need to take a few minutes to look at what happened, find any problems and then draw up a new plan that solves those issues. Then we need to keep doing this until we find the best way for us. It might take 10 versions or 10,000 versions.

When programmers develop a new user interface, they design the interface and then have multiple users test the product. They gather information from these tests, iterate a new design based on the information and then go back to the testing phase.

For a lifestyle change, the iteration design should look something like this:

  • Make a plan for the change
  • Implement the change as soon as possible
  • After a few days, look at what’s working and what’s not
  • Evaluate your plan and adjust anything that’s not working
  • Continue implementing the plan with each new version
  • Repeat this process every few days. Plan -> Implement -> Evaluate -> Repeat

As we learn to take our life in successes and failures, correcting and improving with each failure, we will lead better lives. Your first idea or plan might not always be the best way. “Ship” any changes as soon as you can so you can start gathering information about failure. Don’t beat yourself up for failing. Remember that one of the most important things for improving iterations is to have failures to learn from.

Everything I do as a writer is a big experiment. I find things that work and I try to implement those into my other writing. Sometimes I write articles that do really well and others that flop. The key is that I learn from both successes and failures. I correct the failures and emulate the successes to slowly improve my writing.

This Ted Talk about the Marshmallow Challenge is also super interesting. It’s worth the watch.

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