Playing with Behavioural Friction

A few weeks ago I saw someone use the phrase “Behavioural Friction” on social media. I’m sure the idea’s been around for a long time and I know I’ve read lots of advice on how to use it to my advantage when I am working on trying to either build good habits or stamp out bad ones. But sometimes the right phrase at the right time just resonates and this was the time.

The principle is simple and many already do it. If you are trying not to eat junk food, you don’t keep cookies in the cupboard at home because it’s too easy and tempting to just run and grab one. How easy and tempting? So easy that when I wrote that sentence I thought “Hmmm – I wonder if we have any yummy snacks in the kitchen?” But if I wanted to go get a cookie now (or more my jam, some samosas or a bag of chips) I would have to get warm clothes on, and go out and get some. If they were in the kitchen I’d be eating them now.

In the late 90s and early 2000s after many workplaces instituted smoking bans in the office, they found that many reduced their smoking and lots of people quit outright. You could no longer just light up at your desk – you had to go outside. Some of my clients even made you leave the campus outright. The hassle just gets to be too much for people.

On the flip side that same person might want to eat more veggies. Getting a fresh veggie box delivered to the house might mean they no longer have to think about what vegetables to buy or even remember to have some available. They’re in the fridge, they just need to make them. It’s the opposite of my samosa example.

So how have I been doing with this approach myself?

Let’s start with somewhere I’m trying to reduce friction. Indoor cycling:

When I first started indoor cycling back in 2017, I had one bike and a trainer which used a special wheel. If I went for an outdoor ride on Wednesday, I would have to bring my bike up from the bike room, switch to a whole different wheel, put it on the trainer. Then I’d get the trainer to connect to the software (which was fussy), calibrate it (which was also fussy, increase wheel resistance, decrease it, but not so much that the wheel spins. Then find bike clothes. Change into them and…Oh look, it’s been 30 minutes already and the trainer just disconnected from the server again. Forget it. Or maybe I did do a ride after all. But then I’d have to take it all apart and put it away at the end out of the way of my computer.

Since then I’ve made some improvements. First off, I have a second bike. I do use this one outdoors sometimes but very infrequently. So it’s permanently sitting at the ready. There’s no more special wheel as it’s directly connected to the trainer so that fussiness is gone.

The bike is right next to my desk. One of my two monitors is installed on an arm I can swing over to the front of the bike to give me a good view. There’s a mount on the handlebars for my phone which I can use for steering and limited chat and for powerups in races. Now when I want to ride, I plug in the trainer, swing the monitor over and start up the software. I keep my exercise clothes and cycling shoes next to my desk. It literally takes me 5 minutes to go from working at my desk to riding on my bike. And that reduced friction has made a huge difference. It’s made it easier for me to ride after work and even to just jump on the bike first thing in the morning and knock out up to a 2 hour ride before I even get in a day’s work. Remove the friction and things get easier.

Getting on the bike is easy. And if I’m just watching, I can even attend a webinar or training from the saddle

What about the other direction? What in my life has too little friction to start with? Let’s talk about Monday’s experiment.

The great thing about taking transit to work is that unlike driving, all the time you spend getting to work can still be yours. You can read, listen to music, study or even watch a movie. My commute is about 75 minutes each way so that’s 150 minutes – 2.5 hours of time all to myself to do with as I please. But with an unlimited mobile data plan and a nice phone, I found that some days the only time I would stop browsing the web, particularly social media was when my route took me into the subway and there was little or no access. It is so easy. It’s right there in my pocket, two clicks and I’m there. Click a couple more times and I switch the app. Post a few things, respond and before you know it you’re at work. Some days I might spend an hour – over half the commute frittering away my time like that.

What about books? Sure, I still was reading them, underground where there was no access or before bed or sometimes if I found a really interesting book. But the threshold for how interesting a book needed to be was pretty high. After all, fun is just sitting a couple of clicks away with no thought required.

Yesterday I tried a different approach to add some friction. It was a simple tweak to my packing. As it’s winter, I have a big coat which easily holds an e-reader in the pocket. I tossed my Kobo in there. Then, after a quick check to see which bus I should take (it’s cold – I want to be on a warm bus quickly), I buried my phone in my backpack.

At the end of the day I had used my phone for approximately 3 minutes on the ride. It was too much of a pain to take it out – except to check the bus timing for home and message Sage about evening plans.

What did I do instead?

Of course I read – but funnily enough, I ended up reading a paper book that I was interested in. Instead of carrying my phone in my hand as I transfered between buses and subways, I just carried the book. Instead of scrolling through my timeline while waiting for the bus, I read.

But I also found something else happened. I had ideas. A few thoughts came to me about projects to do this summer, some things I should write about here, and some items to add to my to-do list. Luckily I also had put a tiny hardbound notebook and pen in my pants pocket. I took all of these notes down, photographed them just before getting off the bus and they went into my Evernote app to be further refined. My brain, no longer engaged with trying to think of where it might find the next interesting content to consume now had time to give me some ideas to work on.

I’ll definitely be making this part of my routine for commuting.

What are some things that are too easy (or too difficult) in your life that you can tweak? Or have you done some tweaking of your own? Let me know in the comments below!

3 thoughts on “Playing with Behavioural Friction

  1. Thank you Todd. There is so much to learn from your post. Now it is early morning, I am drinking coffee and replying. I switch off the data when I go in. I switch on the WiFi after I finish my morning work. Even when I am reading, I keep my mobile far away. I switched off the notifications in most of the apps, so there is no distraction. There is so much we can do to see that we don’t get stuck in unwanted things.

    1. I’ve considered turning off wifi here sometimes though with our varying schedules I think we’d really only turn it off for a few hours. I start my day at 5 – and use the wifi from about 5:30. Daegan often is up well past midnight. Even when nobody is browsing the web there’s often music streaming in one room or another. And we have a few rooms with digital assistants to take notes, look up things, play music or just tell me the weather when I’m deciding what to wear. As I write this I think it sounds a bit like science fiction – and even just a few years ago it was.

      Funny how, at least in my case, I think of a lot of this as necessary but a little over 20 years ago we were using oil lamps, cutting wood by hand for heating and carrying water from a well. So really, what *is* necessary in my day to day life? Other than the obvious biological needs, I’m going to stick with books and music. Even when we had no electricity we still had access to a library.

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